Merry Monarch Remembered

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

"Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people." David Kalakaua, King of Hawaii, 1874 to 1891.

Sixty years after Queen Ka'ahumanu, King Kamehameha's wife, had forbidden the dance in the name of Christian values, Kalakaua gave hula back its glorious crown. He became known as the Merrie Monarch. Under his reign, Hawaiian traditions revived and took on a new life. Ancient sports were once again celebrated and the hula was reborn.

But with the King's death, hula, that indigenous expression of a whole culture, in dance and story telling, became once again a rare event. Some might even have wondered if the chants, the movements, the tradition, were lost all together. The missionaries, it seemed, had finally won. The overtly sensual movements, the scarcely clad men and women had been a disgrace to the education the church so desperately taught.

Fortunately, hidden form exposure, the sacred knowledge lived on. And a few decades later, in the early and mid 1900's, hula reemerged to lure tourists to the islands, even though at first it was a commercialized "grass-skirt-girl" version of the ancient dance.

In May 1960, a series of tidal waves devastated the town of Hilo on the Big Island. Waves 30 feet high broke into the impoverished town and economy, with sugar companies, the main cash crop, closing all around. Grim years filled with destruction lay ahead.

To attract more tourists, Helen Hale, chairperson of Hawaii County, agreed to give her support to an inspiration of kumu hula (hula master) George Na'Ope and Gene Wilhelm. The year was 1963. A "Merrie Monarch Festival", they felt, would draw a fresh crowd to their town. After all, tourists heading for Oahu adored the smiling aloha girls when their cruise ships reached the Honolulu ports. "When a girl says 'a-lo-ha' you say back aloha," the visitors were taught, and they loved that sentence all the way. Hilo wanted to elaborate on this Hawaiian welcome.

The first Merrie Monarch was celebrated in Hilo in April 1964. The program consisted of barbershop quartets, street dancing, fire works and coronation pageants. The revenue it brought, however, couldn't save Hilo. The festival was doomed again.

Together with George Na'Ope, Dorothy Thompson, chairperson for the festival in 1968, decided to change the direction of the dying tourist attraction. If it was to continue in the name of King Kalakaua, she reasoned, then it should become a cultural event, celebrating the sacred Hawaiian ways. Dorothy and George traveled to Honolulu hoping to convince two of the largest hula halau (dance groups) to perform on the Big Island. The halaus suggested that Hilo hosts a competition. They wanted more than just a show, they wanted to show their best.

And so, in 1971, the first competitive Merrie Monarch competition took place in a tiny gymnasium, the Hilo Civic Auditorium. Nine halaus participated. These nine hula halaus made history and for any of them to return, gives them an immediate place of honor and respect.

During those early years of the Merrie Monarch Festival, only women participated, and an audience of a hundred people, although pleasant in itself, still didn't boost a suffering town. With the introduction of the kane (men's) division in 1976, the Merrie Monarch took a new turn toward adventure, challenge and ever deeper pride in its infinite rich past.

With the men coming on stage, styles of hula performance changed and came into question. What makes a hula halau authentic? What makes a dance successful and exciting to watch, while preserving its essential Hawaiian qualities?

The audience fell in love with the rapidly changing definitions and developments. In 1979 the little gym no longer fit and the Merrie Monarch moved to the Edith Kanako'ole stadium. Dance groups kept returning. The festival grew and grew. The next year television cameras arrived. The year after, and ever since, the Merrie Monarch has been receiving uninterrupted live coverage on State-wide television.

To streamline the events different categories had to be defined. As it is today the kane (men) and the wahine (women) now must dance once in kahiko, the style of the ancients, rooted in tradition, in a culture of survival and the laws of the gods and kapus (taboos). And once they must dance auana, that what ever changes and adapts to its times.

A raw life force marks the kahiko dances. The steps and movements, almost primordial, convey power, sexual prowess, sensuality, and a deep reverence for the balancing forces of nature, and of the gods who protect or savage at will. Kahiko dancers' costumes show primary colors, and often a lot of skin. In 1986, Darrell Lupenui shocked and enchanted the audience when his men wore nothing more than a G-string. Last year, Chinky Mahoe's hula halau won first place with a magnificent mele (song) portraying the desperate search of the god Maui, out at sea. In their strong dances sparkles the intrinsic beauty that comes with believing in who you are.

Up to a few years ago, the auana division, on the other hand, showed more of the stereotypes of the modern life. The women were dressed in flowing, shimmering gowns, or even in almost nun-like dark-blue dresses collared up to the neck. The men often wore aloha shirt and slacks. It was as if the auana dance, to please the tourist, had to be sweet and charming, at all times. The songs were courteous and gentlemanly, more melodious than their kahiko counter part.

Auana means 'to wander, to go from place to place' in Hawaiian. Not 'modern', as is often said. The hula halaus had to perhaps digest the implicated freedom for a while. But in recent years, the auana division is using its freedom and showing ever greater creativity. Free by definition, auana allows fun, color, diversity, and just as much sensuality as the kahiko. Last year, Chinky Mahoe stirred the almost stifled auana division with the performance of his halau in a fascinating, funny, vigorous, upbeat "toad dance". Yes, the dancers were irreverent toads in the rainy season, happy as amphibians can be in their puddles of mud.

He won first place. With this victory he might have awakened the auana, giving it the fire of kahiko dance burning with contemporary interests. And so, in both divisions, dancers are more daring, kumu hulas (dance teachers) are more experimental and the hula is more alive than ever.

Contemporary or not, one thing remains. The Merrie Monarch Festival has been and will always be carried by the gods and goddesses of old: Laka, Hopoe, Hi'iaka, Pele, and Hina.

Also, the Merrie Monarch is far more than a competition. Still today it remains the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people. Dancing the hula demands dedication and surrender to the cosmic forces of creation. It's devotional. dancers know that wrong motivation can anger the gods. They know that they are messengers of a language older than time. And so, each halau starts the Merrie Monarch with purification rituals, a pilgrimage to a sacred pond, or to the home of Pele, in Kilauea crater.

Dorothy Thompson, "Aunt Dottie" for those who have been privileged to meet this vibrant woman, now works 365 days a year for what has grown into an event of world-class, the biggest Hawaiian cultural celebration, unique in what it stands for, teaching and enriching all involved. Hula has come back to life. George Na'Ope left Hilo in 1975 and lives now in Kona. George is still a kumu hula and entertainer, traveling worldwide.

Tradition has not been lost and dances forward in time. The mele has passed from mother to daughter, father to son, teacher to student, and now will continue its living legace of the past. The Merrie Monarch Festival, celebrating its 34th year, draws an increasingly diverse and enthusiastic crowd from all continents and countries. Hilo can breathe with relief. This year some of the greatest halaus will return. what started as a small gymnasium show, has grown into a spectacle of daring aventure, agaility, suppleness, and the masterful beauty of what mele, body, training and devotion can do. The meles of the Merrie Monarch give us a change to feel the ultimate expression of life, when lived in balance with creation. The festival this year will take place from March 30 through April 5.

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