Several WCC students participated this month in the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, a week-long festival of hula, Hawaiian language, culture and art at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium in Hilo.
The festival honors the legacy of King David Kalākaua, who ruled the Kingdom of Hawai‘i from 1874 until 1891. Known as the “Merrie Monarch,” he brought back Hawaiian culture and traditions such as hula that were suppressed by Christian missionary teachings.
The first Merrie Monarch Festival took place in 1964, and according to merriemonarch.com, featured hula as well as other events like a King Kalākaua beard look-alike contest, a barbershop quartet contest, a relay race, a recreation of King Kalākaua’s coronation, and a Holokū Ball.
This year’s festival included musical performances, an art and crafts fair, Hō‘ike performances and more. Hula hālau from Japan and Mexico competed, along with dozens of local hālau.
Among the many dancers were WCC students Marissa Medrano and Austin Rezantes.
Medrano, who has been with Hula Hālau ‘O Kamuela for 16 years, has danced hula since she was 5 years old. She talked about the challenges of balancing preparation for the festival, which begins in January, with her classes.
“During the spring semester, I take all online classes,” Medrano said. “Due to late practices and fatigue, it’s just easier because I can sleep in, wake up and do homework, then go to practice from 6-10 p.m. Weekends are hard for homework because my hālau practices from 1 to 7 p.m., sometimes until 10 p.m. As for the week I’m gone (for the festival), I try to do the work during spring break to be ahead because we aren’t allowed any technology once weʻre in Hilo, including cell phones. We’re completely off the grid.”
Rezantes has been dancing hula for 5 years. He spent his first four years dancing at Kamehameha Schools and is now part of Hālau Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka Lā.
“It’s like a Kamehameha hālau,” Rezantes said. “So pretty much all of the boys in the hālau went to Kamehameha. I was dancing with Kumu Kaleo Trinidad since my freshman year of high school at Kamehameha. The practices weren’t too rough actually, but we definitely had to practice a lot outside of hālau too.”
WCC Hawaiian Studies instructor Makanani Salā started dancing hula when she was three and has participated in many Merrie Monarch Festivals.
“Merrie Monarch is so intense,” Salā said. “Just practicing, it sort of consumes your life depending on your hālau and how much they practice. It really depends on the kumu and what they want to do. And then going to Merrie Monarch, it’s just like a marathon of no sleep. Early morning practice, you’re up all night making leis, getting things ready, but it’s awesome.”
Many hālau try to keep their dances and preparation secret leading into the competition.
“And all of our Merrie Monarch practices are closed,” Medrano said. “Not even our parents can watch.”
Salā has also seen how secretive things get while dancing hula.
“People want to keep their stuff under wraps,” she said. “You know, you donʻt want to let it out there. But some hālaus actually do a little Hō‘ike (exhibition) before Merrie Monarch for the families and stuff … some are really about sharing what they do.”
This year’s first day of competition was April 5, with the Miss Aloha Hula competition. Shalia Kapuau‘ionālani Kikuyo Kamakaokalani beat out 12 other performers for the title of Miss Aloha Hula.
On April 6, 24 hālau took part in the Group Hula Kahiko competition, in which each hālau dances and chants under the guidance of their kumus.
With so much competition, judging has become a lot more challenging than in past years.
“Merrie Monarch has upped our game in hula so much,” Salā said, who no longer dances in the festival but is now a kumu hula. “When you look now, everybody is precise. Before, hula was sort of, at least in terms of precision, was a little loose, and it was a little more fluid. Now, the hula has really tightened up. The level of hula, in terms of the competition of it, is wow. People are coming ready and prepared. I think now, it must be really hard to judge because everybody is bringing their A game.”
However, she said that like any other art, juding is subjective.
“There is a scoring sheet, but there is a category in the scoring for ʻinterpretation,ʻ so that keeps it interesting. What keeps it changing every year is that people appreciate different things, which is great.”
On April 7, hālau performed ‘auana or modern style dances, followed by an awards presentation for all group winners.
Medranoʻs Hula Hālau ‘O Kamuela placed fifth in wahine kahiko, placed third in wahine ʻauana and tied for third place in the wahine overall.
Rezantesʻs Hālau Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka Lā won first place for kāne kahiko, first place for kāne ‘auana, first place for kāne overall and placed second overall for the whole competition.
Salā is excited for what the future holds for the Merrie Monarch Festival and what up-and-coming kumu are bringing to this new age of hula.
“I think the interesting part is when people start writing their own music about current issues and then they take it and they perform it,” Salā said. “Hula is definitely going through another resurgence of young kumu hula coming up who speak Hawaiian, write their own songs, who are coming into their own.”
by Leighland Tagawa, Ka ‘Ohana Editor in Chief