by Veronica S.
"Hula is the language
of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the
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
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
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
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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