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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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The next generation: A keiki class of Halau Hula Na Pua Ui O Hawaii, under the guidance of kumu hula Etua


What it’s like to be a judge

Cy Bridges, cultural director of the Polynesian Cultural Center and a longtime judge for the Merrie Monarch

“When Auntie Dottie asked me to be a judge, it was a great honor. More than being on stage.

“The judges all come from different backgrounds and have our own preferences. For example, one year, I decided our halau would do real tapa, the men are in their malo, and, lo and behold, one of the judges had marked me down. It was the first time I’d ever had 2s. I just told my gang, ‘Never mind! It’s just one person’s opinion.’ I felt pono in how we looked.

“The ground rules have been set, luckily, by great masters, and many of them are gone today. Everything has been built upon that foundation, the rules and guidelines and do’s and don’ts. Kahiko is a lot more strict; we have a lot of debates among the judges, actually. But in modern hula, auana [which literally means, “to wander”], you’re free of the restrictions. Still, sometimes you raise your eyebrows and wonder, ‘What in the world are they doing?’

“The Merrie Monarch just provides a stage. It’s up to the kumu what they do on the stage. The kumu might want to push the envelope and try something new and spectacular. People have actually called my home, complaining about the results. One kumu hula called my hotel room, and demanded that we talk about the scores. We now have a rule against that.

“Whatever we do in Hawaiian culture, no matter what we do, the controversies will continue. We deal with it and we can resolve things and then someone will bring up something else. Sometimes, I think to myself [about the complainers] ‘Well, why don’t you go start your own festival then?’"


Nalani Kanakaole checks out some of the improvements being made at the Edith Kanakaole Multi-Purpose Stadium, named in honor of her mother, and the site of the Merrie Monarch's hula competition. Edith Kanakaole was a respected chanter and kumu hula; Nalani is today kumu hula of Halau o Kekuhi, renowned for use of the vigorous style of hula and oli called aihaa. The family counts eight generations of kumu hula, which is currently passed down via the matrilineal line.

Building a better festival

According to Jason Armstrong, a spokesman for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation, the County has invested $3.2 million for upgrades to the Edith Kanakaole Multipurpose Stadium, where the Merrie Monarch is held. A 4,200-square-foot building is being added, which can be used as a dressing-room area. “We’re expanding the restrooms, adding a larger lobby.” Other work includes covered walkways between Aunty Sally Kaleohano’s Luau Hale, which has dressing rooms, and the building, as well as electrical upgrades. “We do want to and will finish before this year’s festival,” says Armstrong. “As with any capital improvement, it’s a pretty lengthy and involved process. This will adequately expand the facility for years to come.” Armstrong also reports that a volunteer group will do some power washing and painting. “We want to have the facility looking its best for the large crowds.”

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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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