The Merrie Monarch Festival

I came across videos of the Merrie Monarch Festival last year on Dreamwidth, I've always wanted to share them here but they fell off my radar until someone linked to recent videos a few weeks ago.

So, what exactly is the Merrie Monarch Festival. Some background;
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.


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.


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.

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. [Read more...]

It's interesting that the Festival did not take off until it became a celebration of cultural history and included male dancers. I think this is important for reasons I shall not get into in this post. Please click on the link above to read more and get a clearer idea of how the culture had to be stifled in order to please the (most likely white) tourists as seen in the auana divisions of the festival.

As someone who is familiar with Nigerian and West African traditional dances, it's easy to notice that most tourists only appreciate watered down versions of original dances. I've heard that there are now white people who think because they dance zumba, they know everything about African traditional dances! *facepalm*

Anyway, videos!

 Ke Kai O Kahiki at the festival in 2008...

...and in 2011

 Na Mamo Pu'uanahulu in 2010.

Kawaili'ula in 2010.

All the dances in the videos above have been kahiko, which I guess are the more 'traditional' ones. Here is one auana video, the type that was apparently originally for tourists but is now getting more creative. The dancers in this video are from Kawaili'ula.

I could barely make it through the first few minutes. I'll draw this post to an end with another Ke Kai O Kahiki kahiko dance. I think they won the competition in that year (2009).


  1. Thank you very much for sharing!

  2. I can't stop watching, thank you for sharing :-)

  3. Thank you eccentric! You always have the goodies!

  4. The comments are hilarious!(For Merrie Monarch 09)The crowd goes wild at 2:16! (I know it was the ladies!!!)

    1. (I know it was the ladies!!!)

      Hells yea!

  5. This is really enjoyable to look at. Although I'm not familiar with the Merrie Monarch festival,my cousin said he attended one when he was stationed in Hawaii. He said he liked it. Unfortunately, he only have pictures of the dancers.

  6. Puts me in the mind of a more sensual version of Maori dances (they're more on the warrior side of dance).

  7. The kahiko dances are amazing. I really wish I knew what they were saying.
    The auana dances were...ok at best. EccentricYoruba thank you for your usual amazing finds :) .

    1. Thanks so much for these! I love Hawaiian culture and I spent a summer studying (aka Tales from the Smutty Side, Honolulu edition) on Oahu. Those island men.... I have no words. And they appreciated me right back. Sigh. I need to take another trip out there in the worst way!

      ANYway... back to the topic at hand. I always preferred the traditional style of hula dance as well. It is so beautiful and spiritual. The touristy stuff feels polluted somehow to me. I understand that art needs to renovate and continue to evolve. I just don't like when that happens to please tourists, instead of to honor the creativity of the dancers themselves.

  8. "(aka Tales from the Smutty Side, Honolulu edition)"



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