Photo:  Dennis Oda.

Photo: Dennis Oda.

The Merrie Monarch Festival is a major event in the 50th state that you don’t want to miss. Held each spring in the Big Island town of Hilo, the festival showcases the art of the Hawaiian hula by celebrating the legacy of the Merrie Monarch, King David Kalakaua, who ruled the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1874-1891.

Kalakaua is credited with inspiring a deeper appreciation of the Hawaiian culture. Since early Hawaiians didn’t preserve the essence of the culture in writing, the hula served as a means of building on a historical record of the Hawaiian culture, and has entrusted future generations with a profound sense of stewardship in perpetuating the art.

Each year, the weeklong festival features a craft fair, art show and a grand parade through Hilo town. The highlight of the festival, of course, is the internationally acclaimed hula competition — this year held April 28-30 — and featuring men and women performing in both hula auana (modern dance) and hula kahiko (ancient dance). Twenty-eight halau (schools) entered this year’s contest, while 12 dancers competed in the Miss Aloha Hula competition.

Those Who Teach

The wahine from Halau Hula 'O Kahikilaulani (Kumu Hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang; Hilo, HI) dance during the Kahiko portion of the Merrie Monarch Festival competition.  Photo:  Dennis Oda.

The wahine from Halau Hula ‘O Kahikilaulani (Kumu Hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang; Hilo, HI) dance during the Kahiko portion of the Merrie Monarch Festival competition. Photo: Dennis Oda.

One such person committed to sharing the art of hula with others is kumu (teacher) hula Nahokuokalani Gaspang of Halau Hula O Kahikilaulani, based in Hilo.

“It’s wonderful that we have the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, which is the capital of hula now,” Gaspang says. “The festival keeps the Hawaiian culture alive, and the memory of King (David) Kalakaua.”

Halau Hula O Kahikilaulani will have entrants in both the male and female categories.

“It’s a decision we made in honor of our late kumu, Rae Kahiki Fonseca, ” says Gaspang. “It’s been a long road to prepare for the competition. We will always remember what Rae used to say, and that is if anything goes wrong, the show must go on. We’ve been preparing for competition since June of last year.”

Gaspang notes that it was challenging to select numbers that the halau wanted to do at this year’s event, so they chose numbers from Kauai for kahiko and awana.

“The last trip we took with Rae was to Kauai, and he loved that island, says Gaspang. “We’ve been practicing five hours a day. Everyone who goes out there does their best. We thank our kumu Rae.”

“It’s all about preparing our students to get up on that stage, and be ready to compete,” says Oahu Kumu Hula Ed Collier of Halau O Napua Kukui, about the competition. “We’re excited about going to Hilo. It’s the Super Bowl of hula.” Halau O Napua Kukui began preparing in December of last year.

“People attend the festival and appreciate what students do, and what kumu hula do,” says Collier. “We all feel that way. We practice three days a week and Sundays are long days, because we practice four to five hours. We practice in Nanakuli at a friend’s home, with a large yard. They have allowed us to set up a mock Merrie Monarch stage, so the students know exactly where they have to be.”

The halau chose E Ala E Hawaii Moku O Keawe for its kahiko performance. For the hula awana, the halau chose The Green Lantern Hula. The song was written by John Piilani Watkins. The song is about a night club in Maili, on Oahu. At one time Watkins was a headliner at the club. As told to Collier by Kealoha Kalama and other people living in the area, there were green lanterns hanging inside the club.

“The thing I want people to take back with them, is the aloha that is shared by each dancer,” says Collier. “It’s not just the moving of the hands and feet. It’s about the aloha that comes from within. When an audience can feel that coming from a dancer, that’s what they will take back with them. Knowing that we’ve shared aloha through the hula.”

How It All Began

Photo:  Dennis Oda.

Photo: Dennis Oda.

In the early 1960s, the chairperson of Hawaii county, Helen Hale, explored alternative ways to market the Big Island of Hawaii to the Mainland and elsewhere. A tsunami had left a wake of devastation, and the island was in need of an economic “shot in the arm.”

George Na’ope and Gene Wilhelm were dispatched to the Lahaina Whaling Spree on Maui to assess the event’s success. Na’ope and Wilhelm provided Hale with observations about the event. As a result of those observations, the Merrie Monarch Festival made its debut in 1964.

The event was close to becoming a footnote in history in 1968, if not for Dottie Thompson, who became the festival’s executive director. A hula competition was launched by “Aunty” Dottie and “Uncle” George in 1971. In the first year, nine women halau competed. The first Miss Hula title was awarded to Aloha Dalire. Competition was opened to men in 1976.

For more information, call The Merrie Monarch Festival office at 1-808-935-9168. You can also find detailed information about the festival on the web:

For more stories about the Merrie Monarch Festival, visit