Merrie Monarch Celebrates 50th Year

Fifty Years/Seven Minutes: It takes centuries to develop a cultural practice like hula. Half a century to build a festival like the Merrie Monarch. A year for a halau to prepare its performance. And seven minutes to dance on a hallowed stage.


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"No, it's not that big or grand, but in the eyes of a hula dancer, that is the epitome of any stage to dance on," says kumu hula Tiare Noelani Chang. She directs halau No Mamo O Kaala, which competed in last year's Merrie Monarch Festival. This photo is from their 2009 festival appearance.

Photos: Olivier Koning

In honor of this year’s Merrie Monarch jubilee, we talked to some of the thousands of people who have been touched by hula’s most renowned gathering. While many things have changed since the inception of the Merrie Monarch in 1963, tradition has also been a guiding principle. As hula took on a greater prominence at the festival in the early to mid-1970s, the Merrie Monarch became ever more vital for nurturing and preserving the culture of Hawaii. “Hula is about being conscious across the human timeline,” says Taupouri Tangaro, a hula professor and humanities chairperson at Hawaii Community College in Hilo. “Hula is the artery that keeps the ancients and the moderns in communication.”


In The Beginning

Alice Moon, executive director of Downtown Hilo Association

“I remember, and this was 50 years ago, my mom pasting beards on guys for the pageant. It was small back then, and there were dramatic venues, like reenacting King Kalakaua’s speeches. And the beard contest. They are bringing that back this year.

“Most of it used to take place at Kalakaua Park and the Hilo Amory. It was all downtown then. There was a barbershop quartet contest, a beer garden. It was a real community effort. Businesses decorated their stores with bunting. Helene and George, they were really ahead of their time. There was the civil rights movement on the Mainland; here, in this little town of Hilo, folks were saying, ‘We have a beautiful culture and want to share it with our visitors and our community."

In the 1970s, during the Hawaiian Renaissance, hula and Hawaiian music reached a renewed prominence. “That’s when it got more exciting—seeing that transition was very interesting. To see the festival blossom over the years, it’s been phenomenal. They say you can never go back, but we can go back and look and acknowledge the roots.”


“Going to Merrie Monarch makes you a better teacher.”


Etua Lopes, kumu hula of Halau Hula Na Pua Ui O Hawaii

“When I first was in the festival, in 1969, there was a little bit of hula, but not much. Maybe seven halau—they were called hula studios back then, not halau.”

In 1968, Dorothy Thompson took over as the executive director of the festival. “Auntie Dottie was like my hula mother. She wasn’t very well versed in the Hawaiian language at first, and she dedicated the rest of her life to it. She lived it. What a legacy. And being accepted by all the kumu at that time. It wasn’t easy. She moved it forward. In the beginning, the buttons to the festival were 50 cents. And you couldn’t give them away. There weren’t 100 people in that Civic Auditorium. By 1971, though, it was packed.

“It used to be just the dancing. Now it’s the language, No. 1. Then your costuming, your lei. The lei are so immaculate now. Every facet in the diamond is shined. Every group has stepped up to the plate. The festival grew not just with time, but also with knowledge.

“I haven’t entered in 13, 14 years, and now, going this year, there are so many forms you need. It’s more defined. If you’re using a composition by a musician, you need a release form. Because today it’s so different with what you can record. I read the rules and regulations and, to me, they make sense. The basic rules are you have seven minutes. Not more than five musicians, no cellophane costumes, no plastic flowers. There are rules on the foot movements, the hand movements.

“I had stopped doing contests for a while. We did so many contests; my ladies lost focus on the halau.

 The Merrie Monarch has such a powerful energy; it just surrounds you and you feel it. Whether I enter or not, I’m always there.”

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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