In order to dance in Merrie Monarch, you have to be very good. Competition is by invitation only, and while the most renowned hālau are more or less guaranteed a slot, part of the excitement is seeing who was, and wasn’t, allowed to attend. The 20-odd troupes, who come from across the islands, but also California, Nevada, and Texas, compete in two styles of dance: The first is kahiko, or ancient, hula, which is danced to a chant and percussion. In kahiko, the costumes, too, are traditional: typically, a malo for men, and a pa’u or voluminous cotton skirt, paired with a strapless cotton top, for women. The dancers are solemn during kahiko, and a significant number of the chants are about the islands’ creation stories, the gods and goddesses people here worshipped for millennia. ‘Auana, or modern, hula is what most of the world recognizes as hula: Danced to a mele, or song, it was developed during Hawaii’s post-war tourism boom, an accessible bastardization of the dance intended purely as entertainment. But over the decades – and in a feat of cultural reappropriation – ‘auana was transformed and elevated into a legitimate form of hula, one that has transcended its commercial origins. The songs – many of which are ’50s standards, winking, playfully provocative tunes about sex and romance – are danced without irony, the dancers’ faces bright with smiles. One night of the competition is devoted to kahiko (men in one group, women in another), and the second to ‘auana. Along with different costumes, each performance requires different ornamentation: Thousands of blossoms are required to make a hālau’s leis, and by the end of the event, the air is redolent of bruised flowers.
I come from a hula-mad family. I never danced it myself, but my brother did and my mother still does. We watched Merrie Monarch annually from our living room in Honolulu, and when he was in high school, my brother’s hālau was invited to attend. My mother went with them and spent the week threading leis, ironing pa’u and generally acting as a kind of hula handmaiden. She was giddy upon her return, excited to have spotted the famous kumu hula (hula teachers, who choreograph the dances) she knew of but had never seen in person, including the kumu – Nalani Kanaka’ole, Sonny Ching, and Kekuhi Kanahele among them – who had done more for the revival of the art than perhaps anyone.
And yet when I moved to the mainland for college, I had difficulty articulating what made hula so elemental.
After all, many places have their own cultural rituals that they consider essential to their identity: Think of rodeo in Texas, or 4-H in Indiana. But hula, I’d argue, is more than just a regional particularity – it is Hawaii itself. When you watch or dance hula, you are becoming a participant in both a 1,600-year-old tradition, one practiced since the first Polynesian settlers arrived from the present-day Marquesas Islands on outrigger canoes, and a concerted and ongoing effort to resurrect Hawaiian culture, to make it a fundamental part of life in the islands. For years, Hawaiian dance, language, and music were endangered, banned or obliterated by nineteenth-century Christian missionaries and American imperialists, who hoped to rid the islands of their pagan practices. But today, thanks in large part to generations of historians, linguists, activists, and artists, the greatest expression of native art still lives, and thrives, in hula. Now, you can watch hula – ‘auana or kahiko – almost anywhere in the islands. Now, you can listen to Hawaiian music on the radio on your choice of three stations. Now, you can live in a culture in which men see no contradiction between dance and masculinity. Now, you can hear – as I did, this past summer, moved nearly to tears – the beautiful, rhythmic, glottal-filled Hawaiian language being spoken on the street in downtown Honolulu between two businessmen on their lunch break. Being in Hawaii and not seeing hula is like being in Hawaii and not going to the beach: It is a living, ever-changing palimpsest of the islands’ history and the islands’ future. It is proof that a culture near extinction can resuscitate itself.
That evidence is found most thrillingly at Merrie Monarch, which is named in honor of the bon vivant King David Kalākaua, who reigned over the Hawaiian Islands from 1874 until his death in 1891. Few people outside Hawaii have ever heard of him. But it was he who overturned the public ban on hula, which had been imposed by the former queen, a Christian convert, in 1830. Hula, he knew, was inextricable from what Hawaii is. When you watch hula, then, you watch it for – and because of – him.