The Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo is one of the last legit places to see the real Hawaii, ancient and modern, on full display
The lights dim, and the arena goes quiet. Though it’s never truly quiet – Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium is vault-ceilinged and cavernous, and coughs echo through the space – you can sense the audience stilling itself; you can hear the bleachers creak as people lean forward.
Then the first of the men walk onto the stage, I and the crowd – some 5,000 people – sigh their appreciation and shout their approval. Flashbulbs blink throughout the stadium like fireflies. There are 20 men, and at first, they appear to be identical: their chests and legs and armpits freshly waxed, their hair slicked back with pomade, their foreheads and ankles and wrists and necks circled with bushy fern leis. They are naked but for a malo, a poufy fold of stiff cotton, which covers the crotch and resembles an origami rose. They stand, arms stretched before them, thumbs aligned, or with fists on their hips, and wait for the sound of their teacher’s hand slapping against his ipu, a large dried gourd that provides the percussive beat for all hula chants. Many hulas that are danced to chants begin with a call-and-response, and the teacher sings out a first line in Hawaiian – Are you ready? – and his troupe shouts out their affirmation: Yes, we’re ready. And then the dance begins.
Hula prizes uniformity above almost everything else. There might be 9 dancers, or 14, or 21, and they might be arranged in three or four or five rows, but no matter their number, you can be certain that hours of practice have been devoted to the group’s conformity of step and gesture. But the strange thing about hula is that the better synchronized a troupe is, the more it encourages you to notice the dancers’ differences: As they move, you see that this one is a teenager, and that one I in his 60s. This one is white, and that one is Asian (though most are distinctly “local,” that inimitable ethnic mix of Polynesian, Asian, and Caucasian that is the modern face of the Hawaiian Islands). This one is fat and tall, and that one is short and thin. Offstage, they are doctors and mechanics and social workers and civil servants. Onstage, though, they are only dancers.
Too soon, it’s over. There is one final call-and- response. The dancers hold their pose. Applause fills the stadium like birds. And then the troupe halves itself and exits, one group going stage left, the other stage right. Their dance is finished.
To love Hawaii is to love hula, and to love hula is to wait all year for the islands’ most prestigious competition, Merrie Monarch. The festival, which is held every Easter weekend, was founded in 1963 in part to revive the fortunes of Hilo, the small, very rainy former plantation town on the east coast of the Big Island, the largest of the seven inhabited islands. Most of the year, Hilo resembles what it is: a sleepy post-colonial outpost, a place where, until recently, parking meters accepted pennies, and where locals like my parents can visit from Honolulu and pretend they’re still in pre-statehood Hawaii, a place so remote that newspapers from the mainland arrived a day late.
But for one week a year, Hilo becomes the hub for hula fanatics. There are the troupes themselves, called hālau, but there are also their entourages: the family members and friends who will spend the days before the event mending, sewing, fixing hair, feeding, prepping, and encouraging. There are the fans – securing a ticket to the festival is a byzantine and frustrating process, one that was until very recently conducted completely by mail – and there is the media: The two-day competition is broadcast live locally, complete with the land of color commentary and personal-interest featurettes you get with any sports competition. The result is a cross between Burning Man, the Super Bowl, and the Miss America Pageant, but with a lot more mud.