One of Hawaii’s most beloved festivals is underway in Hilo on the Big Island. The Merrie Monarch Festival is a hula competition that began in 1964 as an attempt to attract visitors to the Big Island, which was reeling due to the collapse of the sugar industry there. The festival honors King David Kalakaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891. He was a tireless patron of the arts, saying, “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heart of the Hawaiian people.”

24 hula halau will compete at Merrie Monarch this year, and have no doubt been preparing for many months. In addition to the exacting moves and chants the competition requires, a great deal of energy is spent planning and preparing for the trip to Hilo. Lei must be made and transported, costumes must be tailored, and accommodations and transportation must be arranged. And there’s the small matter of feeding dozens of dancers and their supporters. The festival itself is a massive undertaking with thousands of spectators and hundreds of competitors, but the amount of work that hula halau do to get to Merrie Monarch is only slightly less daunting.

There are three separate competitions, each with men’s and women’s divisions. The Hula Kahiko Group features the ancient style of hula. The Hula ‘Auana Group employs a modernized version of hula. The Miss Aloha Hula is the top solo women’s honor in hula in the world.

The Miss Aloha Hula Award is without a doubt the single most coveted prize for any female hula dancer. Many young women work their whole lives to compete for Miss Aloha Hula. They must master both the kahiko and ‘auana styles, as well as traditional chant. Winners are invariably overcome with emotion at achieving their greatest goal. It’s compelling to watch, even for non-hula fans.

In fact, Merrie Monarch is watched by people all over the world not for just the hula, but for the solemn pageantry, the excitement of competition, and sense of aloha and ohana that fills anyone with any idea of what the Merrie Monarch Festival. Local news stations send their anchors to cover the week-long festival. Families gather around their televisions to watch nieces and nephews, aunties and uncles.

Among the stated goals of the Merrie Monarch Festival is to “perpetuate the culture of the Hawaiian people,” and the festival is clearly well on its way. It’s hard to imagine Hilo’s Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium empty at this time of year.

Another stated goal of the Merrie Monarch Festival is to “reach those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate.” That goal is being met, too, as hula halau from the mainland and abroad continue to make the journey to Hilo to compete each year.

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