The Merrie Monarch Festival

Years ago, I took up hula dancing and loved it. Hula is a combination of dance and story, legend, culture and pure magic. While dancing hula, my teachers educated me on what every move and every gesture meant as well as its cultural significance.  I loved everything about it, and while I danced I felt elevated to another world.

Unfortunately, two torn rotator cuffs (not torn through hula, by the way) forced me to quit dancing. There is still one lovely dance called “Melelana,” that I am still able to dance for my own pleasure–carefully. I also like to keep up with the annual *Merrie Monarch festival, held each year in Hilo, Hawaii in for a week toward the end of March until the beginning of April. The festival begins with a parade, and there are several competition levels for traditional dance–children, some as young as 3 years old (or keiki, meaning ‘children’) and up, teens and adults. Also there are all-female and all-male dances and dancers from many dance schools in Hawaii.

The Merrie Monarch festival is dedicated to the memory of King David Kalākaua, the last king of the Kingdom of Hawaii (1874 until his death in 1891). King Kalākaua fully supported the arts, especially music and dance. He helped to revive many of the endangered native Hawaiian traditions such as mythology, medicine, and chant. He fully supported hula, an ancient and  traditional form of dance. In fact, long before there was a written Hawaiian language, stories were “told” via hula.

Sadly, too many of the cultural practices, especially hula were suppressed for many years under missionary teachings. The European missionaries felt that hula was salacious and encouraged “ungodly behavior.” However, on the plus side, the missionaries were the first ones to convert the oral Hawaiian language to a written language which survives to this day.

If you have never experienced the power and sheer beauty of Hawaiian dance, look it up online. You can find years of Merrie Monarch festivals; they are mesmerizing. Even the tiniest hand movement has meaning. When I danced regularly, my teachers (or “kumus”) were dedicated to absolute authenticity for every move and every gesture. This is all part of honoring the past and also the spirit of hula. In fact, many sacred hulas are prayed over before they are danced to honor the roots of the dance.

From my own experience I can tell you that dancing hula was a privilege and a great learning experience. It can be joyous, wild and seemingly chaotic, gentle and soothing, mystical and magic; a link to a distant and precious past. When I could dance correctly and with humility, it felt as though those ancient spirits were nodding in approval; that I was honoring them with every move.

If you have been lucky enough to visit anywhere in the Hawaiian islands, you will have heard that it is bad luck to take home the black sand (lava rock) from the beaches. This is also called “**Pele’s curse.” Whether or not it is true is always a good subject for discussion. However, it is a very good idea not to test it.

My dance teachers had visited Hawaii, and had a series of unfortunate events happen to them. They discovered that they had unwittingly brought home some of the lava rock embedded in a beach shoe. They immediately took the rock to the nearest ocean and threw it in with a prayer to Pele that she would accept their apologies and return the rock safely back to its original beach.

True or false? You can decide for yourself. However, Pele isn’t an entity you want to mess with; she’s pretty fierce.


*The Merrie Monarch Festival began in 1963 when Helene Hale, then Executive Officer of Hawaii, decided to create an event to increase tourism to the Island of Hawaii. The island had suffered from economic problems after the collapse of the sugar industry, and it was hoped that a festival would boost the depressed economy. Along with George Naʻope and Gene Wilhelm, Hale organized the first Merrie Monarch Festival in 1964. This festival “consisted of a King Kalākaua beard look–alike contest, a barbershop quartet contest, a relay race, a re–creation of King Kalākaua’s coronation, and a Holoku (dress) Ball among other events.”

By 1968, the festival had waned in popularity. Dottie Thompson took over the festival as Executive Director, and transformed it into a private community organization. Thompson “wanted to move the festival more toward a Hawaiian theme,” a goal that was accomplished by centering the festival events around hula. In 1971 Thompson and Na’ope introduced a hula competition. Nine wahine (female) hālau (schools) entered the competition in its first year, and in 1976 the festival opened the competition to kāne (male) hālau.

Today, the Merrie Monarch Festival is an annual week–long event culminating in three days of prestigious hula competitions.It is now a non–profit organization registered with the State of Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Proceeds from the festival support educational scholarships, workshops, seminars, symposiums and the continuation of the event itself.

“Cultural significance: Many believe that the Merrie Monarch Festival “brought about a renaissance of Hawaiian culture.” The festival identifies four goals related to Hawaiian culture: “1) Perpetuating the traditional culture of the Hawaiian people; 2) Developing and augmenting a living knowledge of Hawaiian arts and crafts through workshops, demonstrations, exhibitions and performances of the highest quality and authenticity; 3) Reaching those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate; and, 4) Enriching the future lives of all of Hawaii’s children,” and claims that through the festival “thousands of people in Hawaii and throughout the world are learning about the history and culture of Hawaii.” The Merrie Monarch Festival “has received worldwide recognition for its historic and cultural significance.”

Posted in Wikipedia.

**Pele is well known as a volcano goddess living in the crater of Kilauea on the island of Hawaii.