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Making Merry at the Merrie Monarch

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For those who practice the ancient and storied art of hula, the annual Merrie Monarch Festival is considered the Olympics of the dance. Each year the annual event hosted in Hilo, Hawaii brings together the top echelon of hula dancers – the most talented and dedicated halau from across the globe — to participate in exhibitions and competitions.

The Merrie Monarch Festival has done to hula, what the X Games has done for skateboarding and Michael Phelps for swimming. Worldwide recognition has helped bring about a renaissance of the Hawaiian culture and put the art of hula and Hawaii’s unique history and culture on a national stage where it can eagerly be passed on from generation to generation.

Today the Merrie Monarch Festival is one of the state’s most highly anticipated annual events. Thousands make the regular pilgrimage to scoop up highly coveted tickets or find themselves riveted to their TV or computer to catch dancers every move.

Golden Anniversary

This year marks five decades of the Merrie Monarch Festival (while the first festival was held in 1964, organizers have determined this year’s event to be the 50th anniversary since planning started in 1963). Scheduled to run from March 31 through April 6, 2013, this year’s event will attempt to revive some of Merrie Monarch’s original elements including decorating Hilo’s 150 storefronts, a King Kalakaua beard lookalike contest and coronation pageant at the Hilo Armory, where it was first held decades years ago.

This year’s festival committee led by Luana Kawelu hopes to dig back to the festival’s roots (though unfortunately for some, some events like the four-mile relay race to deliver a live mullet to the king will not make a comeback). Previous winners — such as Hau’oli Hula Studio and 1971 Miss Aloha Hula, Aloha Dalire — will also play a part in Wednesday night’s Ho’ike exhibition, sharing a stage with the 30 hula halau competing in this year’s event.

These special features are in addition to the Merrie Monarch Festival’s traditional events like the Ho’olaule’a, hula exhibitions, craft fairs and hula competition.

For those hoping to attend this year’s events tickets have already been assigned and all Hilo rental vehicles and hotel rooms are sold out. A complete schedule of this year’s 2013 festival activities is available at: www.merriemonarch.com/the-festival. All proceeds from the festival support educational scholarships, workshops, seminars and symposiums in order to support the perpetuation of the festival.

Hawaii’s Merrie Monarch

As King David Kalakaua said, “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian People.” It was his legacy in keeping this heartbeat alive, that the Merrie Monarch Festival is named for and in honor of King Kalakaua. During his reign from 1874 till his death in 1891, Kalakaua was fondly dubbed the “Merrie Monarch” for his support of the arts and work to restore many Hawaiian cultural traditions, including mythology, medicine chant and dance – an art form which had been outlawed after years of missionary influence. He encouraged the transcription of Hawaiian oral traditions and also helped to oversee the construction of ‘Iolani Palace, a structure which today is a symbol to many of Hawaii’s independent monarchy.

For King Kalakaua’s 50th birthday in 1886 – also known as the “Silver Jubilee” – a two-week celebration of Hawaiian culture was held on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace. Festivities included ho’opa’a (chanters), and ‘olapa (dancers) — performing in public for the first time after years of suppression by Christian missionaries – as well as a parade through downtown Honolulu. Today the Merrie Monarch Festival works to continue the king’s work by evoking the spirit of King Kalakaua’s Silver Jubilee through music, crafts, art, demonstrations and hula competition.

History of a Hula Festival

The first Merrie Monarch was held in 1964 with Helene Hale, then executive officer of Hawaii, at the reigns as a way for the island to drive tourism after the sugar industry collapsed. That year, Hale sent her administrative assistant, Gene Wilhelm and George Naope, promoter of activities to Lahaina to find inspiration at the Lahaina Whaling Spree on Maui. The first Merrie Monarch Festival included a King Kalakaua beard look–alike contest (at the inaugural festival Robert Kaula Jr. a Parker Ranch cowboy, won $100 for his mustache and sideburns most closely resembling Kalakaua’s), a barbershop quartet contest, relay race, a recreation of King Kalakaua’s coronation, and a Holoku Ball.

After several years the festival faded in popularity until Dottie Thompson took the reigns as executive director in 1968 and along with Na’ope, transformed the festival into a private community organization. Thompson served as the festival’s head for more than three decades, until her death in 2010.

As part of her legacy as director Thompson fought to keep the focus of Merrie Monarch on hula. In 1971 Thompson and Na’ope introduced a hula competition, with nine wahine (female) halau entering that first year. The competition opened to kane (male) halau a few years later in 1976.

Thompson – or Auntie Dottie as she was fondly referred to — also worked to keep admission prices affordable. To this day ticket prices have stayed at the incredibly reasonable price of $5. Thompson’s influence has also kept the festival based out of Hilo’s Edith Kanaka’ole Tennis Stadium — which seats a “mere” 4,200 — as opposed to a larger facility. Half of the tickets available go to participating halau while the remaining tickets sell out at lightning speed within 24 hours of being released, with requests spanning from around the world.

In recognition of her impact on Hawaii Island and hula, in 2010 Mayor Billy Kenoi proclaimed February 13, 2010, Auntie Dottie Thompson Day.

Schedule of Events

The Merrie Monarch Festival is held every spring, starting on the morning of Easter Sunday and concluding the following Saturday. The first four days of the festival include free, non-competition events, such as performances by hula halau from around the world at venues around Hilo, as well as numerous art and craft fairs. The Ho’ike Night, a free exhibition, is held on Wednesday night and attracts crowds of attendees to take in international halau from other Pacific islands and Japan. On Saturday morning, the final non-competition event of the festival features the Merrie Monarch Parade, which winds its way through downtown Hilo with a procession of floats, pau queens and marching bands.

The hula competition is held at the Edith Kanaka’ole Multipurpose Stadium in Ho’olulu Park. During the competition dancers perform individually and in groups. The first competition event takes place on Thursday night with individual female dancers competing for the title of Miss Aloha Hula, performing chant (oli) as well as both modern (hula auana) and traditional (hula kahiko) forms of hula.

On Friday night, male and female halau compete in the group hula kahiko division, performing ancient styles of hula. Halau compete in hula aunana, the modern style of hula, on Saturday night.

Every performance is given seven minutes, and is judged on a number of categories including entrance (ka‘i), chant (oli) and dance (hula). Judges look closely at the interpretation of the song being performed, expression of the hula, chant or song, posture, precision, grooming, the authenticity of the costume, as well as the dancer’s exit off stage.

For more information and a complete schedule of this year’s Merrie Monarch events please visit www.merriemonarch.com.

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