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.
"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.”


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.”


Not everyone agrees on  whether to compete

Maile Loo-Ching, kumu hula and founder of the Hula Preservation Society

“For the hula elders we have worked with at HPS over the years, competition wasn’t a part of their hula lives. Even when Uncle George Naope started the Merrie Monarch, he didn’t create a competition, but rather a festival.

Big competitions didn’t exist in the 1940s and ’50s, and so it’s something our hula elders cannot readily relate to, as they were not raised in a time when hula and competitions went together like today. But they agree it does give the students and the halau a common goal to focus on, and helps people learn to work hard and work together. And that’s a good thing, no matter what age or hula line you come from. I personally come from a line of hula where I was taught you do not compete with your hula. So I have not and will not compete there myself, or take my students. But we enjoy watching and appreciate all the hard work that goes into it.”


The Producer

Roland Yamamoto, owner of production company The Kukui Media Group

“In 1981, I was a young cameraman on the first multi-camera broadcast for KITV-4, and met Auntie Dottie, who became one of the greatest influences on my life. Since then I have directed and/or produced many of the shows over the years. I’m not a dancer; I’m a TV person. Our job is to portray what goes on the best we can. Realistically, it will never be as good or as exciting as it will be in person. Our job is to get as close as we can, to get the spirit of the festival.

“The stage is plywood, but the way I see it, it becomes the center of the hula world those nights. The mana of the kumu hula and the dancers goes into it, everyone who has ever danced on it or chanted on that stage, is in it. When you go into the Edith Kanakaole Stadium on a normal day, when people are playing tennis, you don’t get any sense of that.

“We certainly have more cameras and angles than we used to. Many of my conversations were about getting permission to place cameras. First with Dottie and now with [her daughter and current festival president] Luana Kawelu, about where we can put a camera. If I put in a camera, it takes away 15 seats. The first year we televised, we had three cameras, and now we’re up to 11. Two are robotic—remote control. They are placed on the ceiling, looking down. 

“They say my camera placement is classic, which I guess means old-school. As a kid, my grandfather owned a theater in Kona, and I remember all those old musicals, Fred and Ginger, and Busby Berkeley. The ideas of showing dance are timeless. I just borrow from everything I’ve ever seen in my life.”


Bringing the Show Home

John Fink, general manager of KFVE

“The Merrie Monarch is the most-watched, longest-running local TV program in Hawaii. We get about 75,000 to 100,000 viewers. For the Internet streaming, more than 150,000. People from 100 countries tune in at some point—from India, France, Mexico, Finland, New Zealand, Africa. And almost 50 percent of the viewers are from Japan; about a million page views.

“There is a great curiosity about the beautiful cultural tradition that is hula. People really want to understand what it’s all about. Or at least try to understand. Some would say you can’t just look at hula, that it’s about the customs, language, the ties to the land and sky. It’s certainly deeper than just watching someone dance, and yet we acknowledge that this is an expression.

[In the future], “the question is, whether there are other ways, such as cable or pay-per-view that could be beneficial to the festival. The West Coast is also fertile ground for us to explore.

“The stadium could use some refurbishing. It’s not a great visual and certainly not great for audio. The roof is metal and the sound bounces all over. Getting the audio right is such a challenge and here you have some of the best musicians in Hawaii. What sounds good in row 42, might not sound good on TV, might not sound good on stage.

“It’s an indoor/outdoor stadium. If a guy two blocks down revs his motorcycle, you can hear it. This is not Radio City Music Hall.”


The festival as a teaching tool

Taupouri Tangaro, Hawaii Community College hula professor and humanities chairperson

“Merrie Monarch is a huge chunk of the spring semester hula curricula. Some [students] dance on the competition stage and use the experience to evidence learning; others stand in line to experience the Merrie Monarch and write reflection papers; some watch from home. What’s most important is that it provides an authentic opportunity for our learners to experience how vast is the soul of the hula.

“There is something about Hilo that makes the Merrie Monarch. I think it has to do with all the earthquakes, the volcanic sulfuric wind, the tidal waves, that keep Hilo a Hawaiian community. Secondly, many of the halau on the stage have some hula connection to the Keaukaha hula traditions. So to bring the dances or hula stylings is to return the energy to the old Hilo hula masters, all of whom are dead but live through the human canoes—halau—who continue their traditions.”


On Winning

Michael Casupang, co-director of halau I Ka Wekiu,
which swept the kane division and took home the overall win in 2012

“I don’t believe there is any pressure to win because we were the overall winner last year. What is really important is that our lineage be represented and that we prepare our students to perform and express at their best, at their pinnacle. Our halau name, Halau I Ka Wekiu, means ‘school upon the summit,’ as we teach our students to strive to do their very best in hula, and more importantly, in their everyday lives. When it comes to preparing for Merrie Monarch, all we can do is prepare them to do their best, to work together as a whole and to represent our kumu and our kumu’s kumu and generations beyond.

 “The hours, days, months to prepare comes down to that last breath they take before taking the stage and it all should just unfold and happen without them thinking about it. The dancing, the chanting, all becomes intuitive and emerges from the na‘au, from their gut, not from the brain. It’s spectacular, invigorating, like no other feeling, when you come off that stage and you don’t know what just happened, but you know that it was wonderful and that hula lives.”


Merrie Monarch: Turning Points

  • 1963: Helene Hale, Gene Wilhelm and George Naope begin planning Merrie Monarch

  • 1964: First ever Merrie Monarch Festival

  • 1968: Dorothy "Auntie Dottie" Thompson takes over

  • 1971: Women's hula competition begins; Aloha Wong named first Miss Hula

  • 1976: Men's hula competition begins

  • 1980: The Merrie Monarch is broadcast live on television

  • 2000: Auntie Dottie receives the Outstanding Non-Hawaiian Perpetuating the Hawaiian Culture award by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs

  • 2009: Uncle George Naope passes away

  • 2010: Auntie Dottie passes away. Her daughter Luana Kawelu, takes the helm with staff of entirely volunteers

  • 2013: 50th Annual Merrie Monarch kicks off March 31 / Hula competition April 4-6