For a week every year the hula students from around the world turn their eyes to our Hawaii island for the Merrie Monarch Festival. They watch, or come to participate in this exciting, hula competition.
The first Merrie Monarch competition was held in 1964 (the year I was born). It was to attract tourists to Hilo town that was hit by a tsunami. Originally the competition was sponsored by the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce. In 1968 aunty Dorthy (Dottie) Thompson (served as Festival chairperson) and uncle George Na’ope (one of the Festivals original creators) worked together to make the event the center for cultural revival as well as a place where serious kumu hula could bring their students to compete.
The Festival is named in honor of King Kalakaua, who was known as the Merrie Monarch. King Kalakaua was inspirational in reviving the Hawaiian culture. In 1883 at his coronation celebration hula was preformed. King Kalakaua stated, “Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of The Hawaiian people.” He would be pleased to know that hula continues to thrive and has been embraced by people all over the world!
Not Everyone in Hawaii Hula (dances)
okay, let me clarify the above statement, “not everyone in Hawaii is a practitioner of hula.” However if you’ve gone to school in Hawaii, chances are that you’ve learned at least one hula, especially if your school had a May Day program. I learned my first hula in elementary school, it was a hula noho (seated dance) but I don’t recall which one it was. Unlike my younger sister I wasn’t interested in learning hula. My interest was in martial arts. I learned a hula, “Ka Makani Ka’ili Aloha,” from my aunty kumu hula Lei Malama Leleo to dance for my husband for our wedding reception. After the reception I stopped going to hula.
I finally became a serious hula haumana (student) ten years later when my husband, and the request of my aunty Lei began playing music for Halau Ke Kiai A O hula under the tutelage of kumu hula aunty Brenda Kapi’olani Hao, with aunty Lei and alaka’i Corina. My aunty Lei said to me, “You’re here with your husband at all the practices, you may as well learn the hula,” and I did. My martial arts training helped me to be able to memorize the hula quickly since it was similar to kata, only with music.
(Aunty Lei Malama Leleo and Aunty Brenda Kapi’olani Ha’o)
A year later my aunty Lei asked my husband to come and play for her sister aunty Malia Serrao and her daughter Kumu hula Kau’i Serrao in Ewa Beach. Well, where my husband went so did my son and I. My husband ended playing music, and I ended up dancing for Na Malama Polynesian Dance Studio too. We look back on those five years of being in two different halau and marvel and how we had the stamina to do everything, and manage to keep everything straight!
(Kau’i Serrao, Aunty Malia Serrao, Mr. Mossman, my husband Karl, and kumu Paul Hanohano)
Watching From Home Vs. Watching it Live
In 1994 my husband, son and I traveled with Halau Ke Kia’i A O hula to Hawaii island to watch the Merrie Monarch competition live. The Mana (spirit) of hula was so overwhelming! It was spectacular! My husband was also blessed to be one of the recipients of a Beautiful Ilima Lei by one of the dancers as they came off the stage and exited the stadium. To be there is to be infused with all the Mana of the dancers and musicians! It was a once in a life time experience for us. Now we enjoy watching the festivities from home, the Mana of the dances are still there, but a little muted. I’m still moved by the beauty, percise movements, and love that the participants have for the dance! To me, every Halau is a winner, for they carry on the traditions of our ancestors in the Kahiko division, and excite us with New interpretations of the auwana performances.
It would be over 15 years before I returned to hula. I found a halau in Volcano taught by kumu hula Ab Valencia. I was looking for a non-competitive, very little performing halau. I just wanted to learn to carry on the tradition. When I stepped into kumu Ab’s halau I knew it was the one because it felt like coming home. kumu Ab taught, “Hula is Life.” I was able to learn from kumu Ab for 3 years. Before his passing he told us, “not all knowledge in learned in one halau.” In essence giving us his blessing to move on and find another halau to learn more hula.
I have yet to find another halau, it will happen in its own time. I will know if it is the right place for me, because it will feel like coming home!
Minoaka! La Maika’i!