Hula practitioners say the Merrie Monarch Festival is the most prestigious hula competition in the world. The three day festival is held each spring in Hilo town on Hawaii Island. Hundreds of dancers from all over the world compete for titles in two dance styles: kahiko (ancient) and auana (free or modern). Hula, indigenous dance and storytelling, has been reborn twice. First by King David Kalakaua in the late 1800s and again when tourism spiked in the mid-1900s.
King David Kalakaua’s reign is remembered by his patronage and promotion of Hawaiian music and dance. He did this direct defiance of the newly arrived Christian missionaries, scandalized by the sometimes erotic dances and scantily clad dancers. This earned Kalakaua his nickname The Merrie Monarch.
Unfortunately, upon King Kalakaua’s death, the church succeeded in driving the hula and other disagreeable native cultural practices underground. Hula next reemerged to lure tourists to the islands in the sanitized grass skirt resort version hula dance, and supple hipped dashboard dolls.
When the sugar industry left the Big Island at the same time a tidal wave wiped out most of downtown Hilo, the local economy was devastated. Local hula masters George Na’Ope and Gene Wilhelm proposed to the Hawaii County Council that a festival would attract tourists. In 1964 The Merrie Monarch festival was born.
In 1978 The Merrie Monarch, the state’s largest cultural event celebrating Hawaiian ways, added dance competition to the festival. In 1976 a men’s division was added. In 1980 television cameras arrived. Today The Merrie Monarch is far more than a competitive festival to native Hawaiians. It showcases the hula, a global link to the heart of the Hawaiian people.