“Super Bowl of Hula” Keeps Hawaiian Tradition Alive

Corcoran Pacific Properties is proud to support the 2021 Merrie Monarch Festival, honoring the rich cultural traditions preserved by King Kalakaua.

In Hawaii, hula is considered an educational art form of the highest order, pairing mimetic dance with native-language chants. And later this month, hula groups—or ”halau”—from around the world will be headed for Hilo to shake up its foremost competition.

King David Kalakaua I (1836-1891), nicknamed “the Merrie Monarch.”

Held annually on the Big Island since 1964, the Merrie Monarch Festival is a regional institution, named to honor King David Kalakaua for his unwavering patronage and love of Hawaiian music, dance, and culture. As early missionaries sought to outlaw the islands’ long standing traditions, King Kalakaua overruled them, inspiring a renaissance of Hawaiian culture that’s largely credited for his present-day perseverance. He’s been fondly remembered as “the Merrie Monarch” ever since.

The festival highlights two styles of indigenous dance: Hula Kahiko, the ancient form with chant and traditional instruments, and Hula Auana, the modern style introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries that primarily features ukelele or guitar accompaniment. Both forms are beautifully complex, using hand motions to represent words and emotions while the feet and hips animate these musical stories with rhythmic excitement.

This year’s programming will have strict health and safety guidelines in place, with no live audience and just 15 halau invited to participate. 11 wahine (women) and eight kāne (men) will compete in both categories, along with seven entrants for the solo Miss Aloha Hula.

All viewing will be virtual, broadcast the following week via KFVE/Hawaii News Now—and streaming via the official Merrie Monarch Facebook page—the evenings of July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Winners will be announced in real time, so the halau won’t know who won until viewers do.

“In a typical year, halau come from Japan, California, Texas, Las Vegas—all over,” said Chuck Garrett, Senior Vice President of Brokerage at Corcoran Pacific Properties, a co-sponsor of the event. “And now that it’s streaming, it’s possible to experience this beloved event anywhere in the world.”

Participants practice almost daily for an entire year, with intense training and practice. That includes intensive Hawaiian language lessons, studying every element of each song, and foraging through forests and mountains to hand-pick the flora and fauna to craft elaborate costumes and lei.

For two Corcoran Pacific agents, it’s all exceptionally close to home. Wailana Herbst’s parents named her after a Merrie Monarch dancer they watched perform the year she was born, who Herbst’s mother would later reconnect with in a most surprising fashion.

“She shared this whole story with a telephone operator, only to find out the operator and the dancer were the same person,” remarked Herbst, who has danced since the age of five and performed on numerous occasions during festive week at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.

After a 1997 power outage brought Merrie Monarch to an abrupt halt, Herbst’s stepfather, Chris Ladera—owner of a local generator company—began providing backup generators for the festival, a service he continues today.

While she hasn’t personally competed at Merrie Monarch, Oahu agent Davilyn Sato is a 40-year hula veteran and a proud member of Halau Hula Kauhionāmauna, which performed there in 2017 and 2018.

“Watching on television has incredible vantage points and close-ups, but there’s nothing like the intense energy, grace, and on-point synchronization,” said Sato, who has long attended the in-person event with family and friends.

Learn more about Merrie Monarch here.

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