Merrie Monarch Festival celebrates 50 years
March 29, 2013
The annual Big Island hula competition spotlights Hawaiian cultural history
HONOLULU -- Native Hawaiians explain that hula is not simply a dance or a recreation, but a way of life.
This fact is never more visible than during the Merrie Monarch Festival, when Hawaiians across the islands and the world gather to watch the world's most prestigious hula competition.
The 50th Merrie Monarch Festival begins March 31 in Hilo on Hawai'i Island.
Hālau, or hula schools, spend months preparing for the competition each year.
The festival is named after King David Kalākaua, who was fondly referred to as "The Merrie Monarch" during his reign over the Hawaiian Kingdom.
He earned the title from his subjects after becoming a beloved patron of Hawaiian traditional culture and arts, particularly dance and music.
Kalākaua committed much of his tenure as King to restoring and perpetuating cultural traditions; he strongly encouraged his Hawaiian people to take pride in their native culture.
When the festival was created in 1963, it was named after Kalākaua as a way to honor his critical contributions to Hawaiian music and dance.
Preparations consist of extensive training and practices, ceremonial rituals and spiritual cleansing, gathering native plants and other traditional materials, creation of costumes and hula implements.
Every hālau is comprised of numerous male or female dancers, many of whom have spent their lives growing up in hālau. For many dancers, competing in Merrie Monarch is a lifelong dream.
Many Hawaiian parents start their children in hula at a young age.
"The teaching of hula is a revered and sacred tradition in the Hawaiian community," said Hawaiian musician Matt Sproat.
This year's competition promises to be a particularly extraordinary event. The first night of performance, called the hō'ike, serves as an exhibition night and will feature a "who's who" of hula superstars. Many past winners, including members from the first winning hālau in 1963, will take to the stage.
Fans are particularly excited to see the hālau Nā Kamalei return to the Merrie Monarch stage. Led by musician and Kumu Hula Robert Cazimero, the performance by the male hālau promises to be a highlight of the festival.
The broadcast coverage begins April 3 and will feature the hō'ike. During each night of the festival, viewing parties will be held across the state as friends and family gather to watch the performances.
The competition itself begins April 4 with the Miss Aloha Hula competition. The title of Miss Aloha Hula is one of the most prestigious honors in Hawai'i, as current Miss Aloha Hula Lilinoe Sterling attests.
"This year, as Miss Aloha Hula has been a real gift for me, to be able to do something that I love … represents an incredible hula family, hula lineage and essentially a people," said Sterling. "It has been one of the biggest honors of my life, and I've had such an amazing time doing it."
Sterling explained about her lifetime of training.
"Hula, for me, has been a constant. It's been one of my greatest teachers, provided me the space to be vulnerable, to surrender myself to poetry, strength, 'ike [knowledge]," Sterling explained.
"It is an entity of power and grace that I feel honored to be apart of," she said
The last two nights feature the hālau competition and consist of the kahiko, or traditional hula performances.
"It's always an honor to be a part of the festival, but this year has special meaning because it's the 50th anniversary," said Sproat, who will be performing music at the festival. "It's a wonderful reminder of how far the Hawaiian community has come in perpetuating and advancing our culture."
This weeklong festival features an internationally acclaimed hula competition, a crafts fair, an art show, hula shows and a grand parade through Hilo town.
Catch the hula competition at Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium, April 4-6, in Hilo, Hawai'i, via KFVE (Channel 5, 1005HD Oceanic Cable), beginning at 6 p.m.
Performances can also be viewed starting April 3 at www.k5thehometeam.com/category/260043/the-2013-merrie-monarch-festival on-kfve.