Hawaiian Cultural Festival

The Merrie Monarch Festival is a week-long cultural festival that takes place annually in Hilo, Hawaii. Many Hawai’i halau hula (schools), including some from the U.S. mainland and some international performers, attend the festival each year to participate in exhibitions, demonstrations, and competitions. The festival has received worldwide attention and is the most prestigious of all hula contests.

Honoring King Kalākaua

The festival is dedicated to the memory of King David Kalakaua, the last king of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, who reigned from 1874 until his death in 1891. King David Kalakaua was called the “Merrie Monarch” for his patronage of the arts, especially music and dance. Kalakaua is credited with reviving many endangered native Hawaiian cultural traditions such as mythology, medicine, chant, and hula. As a strong supporter of the Hawaiian traditional dance, Kalakaua restored the hula as it had been suppressed for many years; once “outlawed”, deemed savage and uncivilized by western missionary foreigners.

Brief History

The Merrie Monarch Festival began in 1963 when Helene Hale, then Executive Officer of Hawaii, decided to create an event to increase tourism to the Island of Hawaii. The island had suffered from economic problems after the collapse of the sugar industry, and it was hoped that a festival would boost the depressed economy. Along with George Naʻope and Gene Wilhelm, Hale organized the first Merrie Monarch Festival in 1964. This festival “consisted of a King Kalākaua beard look–alike contest, a barbershop quartet contest, a relay race, a re–creation of King Kalākaua’s coronation, and a Holoku Ball among other events.”

By 1968, the festival had decreased in popularity. Dottie Thompson took over the festival as Executive Director, and transformed it into a private community organization. Thompson “wanted to move the festival more toward a Hawaiian theme,” a goal that was accomplished by centering the festival events around hula. In 1971 Thompson and Na’ope introduced a hula competition. Nine wahine (female) hālau entered the competition in its first year, and in 1976 the festival opened the competition to kāne (male) hālau.

Today, the annual week–long Merrie Monarch Festival runs from Easter Sunday morning to Saturday evening, culminating in three days of prestigious hula competitions.

Non–Competition Festivities

The first four days of the festival consist of free, non–competitive events. These include performances by local and international halau at many venues around Hilo, as well as arts and craft fairs. The festival opens with a ho’olaule’a celebration at the Hilo Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium each Easter Sunday. The Wednesday Night Ho’ike exhibition at the Edith Kanaka’ole Multipurpose Stadium is very popular, and often features international groups from other Polynesian, & Asian Pacific islands, and the U.S. mainland. A final official non–competition event, the Merrie Monarch Parade, takes place on Saturday morning.

One of the most rewarding moments of the event comes on Saturday night between the last competing halau performance and the announcement of winners. While judges tally up scores kumu, haumana, and cultural dignitaries engage in a friendly, Aloha Spirited free-for-all dance off.

Hula Competition

The festivities culminate in the annual competitions held at the Edith Kanakaʻole Multipurpose Stadium at Hoʻolulu Park. Dancers perform individually and in groups, with seven minutes allowed for each performance.

Miss Aloha Hula
Thursday night is the first competition event. Individual female dancers compete for the title of Miss Aloha Hula. Dancers perform in both modern (hula ʻauana) and traditional (hula kahiko) forms of hula, as well as chant (oli).

Group hula kahiko
There are two divisions of group competition, the male (kāne) division and the female (wahine) division. Friday night features hālau performing ancient style hula.

Group hula ʻauana
Saturday night features hālau performing modern style hula in both male (kāne) division and the female (wahine) division. Awards are also announced on Saturday night.