Top Picks For You
Hawaii Travel Guide

This Hawaiian Event Is the Olympics of Hula

Here is how to go behind the scenes of the world's most prestigious hula competition, the Merrie Monarch Festival.

Hula is celebrated for its cultural significance and captivating beauty. But in addition to being an important cultural practice as well as a source of storytelling, education, and entertainment, it’s also an activity that requires a great deal of athleticism.

And in the spring of each year, hundreds of dancers travel to Hilo, Hawai‘i, to compete in the Merrie Monarch Festival, the most prestigious hula competition in the world, sometimes referred to as the “Olympics of Hula.”

“In the same way that the Olympics hosts the world’s greatest athletes, Merrie Monarch hosts the world’s best hula dancers,” Kumu hula (hula teacher) Kamaka Kūkona says.

While the hula competition is televised, the preparation for it has always happened behind closed doors—until recently when one hula hālau (hula school) on Maui began inviting visitors to observe a practice session and witness what it takes to prepare for Merrie Monarch.

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) _ Nicholas Tomasello

What Is the Merrie Monarch Festival?

What began in 1963 as an initiative intended to provide an economic boost through tourism—following the decline of the sugar cane industry and the destruction caused by a tsunami—has evolved into an impactful cultural event. The Merrie Monarch Festival is much more than a hula competition; it’s a week-long celebration that has contributed to the renaissance and perpetuation of the Hawaiian language and culture.

Continue Reading Article After Our Video

Recommended Fodor’s Video

The joyful name is a nod to King David La‘amea Kalākaua, a fun-loving former king (a “Merrie Monarch”) of the Hawaiian Nation from 1874 to 1891 and an avid supporter of the arts. In 1886, Kalākaua marked his 50th birthday with a “Silver Jubilee,” a two-week-long event that included a parade and Hawaiian dancers and chanters. The celebration made a powerful statement; it was the first time these cultural practitioners had performed in public in many years.

Christian missionaries had previously attempted to suppress hula and other forms of Hawaiian cultural expression, and in 1830, Queen Ka‘ahumanu, a Christian convert, banned hula in public places. While some hula practitioners continued to practice and pass on their cultural knowledge (many in secret), missionaries and Christian converts continued to push for a legal ban on hula, which was eventually enacted in 1859. Hula—a cultural practice requiring a great deal of strength, skill, and discipline and carrying with it an oral history, ancestral knowledge, and language—was instead described in legal documentation as “a very great public evil” and “a common nuisance.”

Today, the Merrie Monarch Festival sustains the resilient and celebratory spirit of Kalākaua’s Silver Jubilee, showcasing the best hula dancers and sharing Hawaiian culture, language, and traditions with the world. The popularity and increased global interest are evidence that “our culture and our hula are strong and thriving,” Kumu Kamaka says. 

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) _ Kuni Nakai

What It Takes to Train for the Merrie Monarch Festival 

The Merrie Monarch Festival takes place each spring (this year’s festival is being held April 9-15). But for hula hālau competing in the event, preparation begins well before. Like other athletes, hula dancers headed for Merrie Monarch abide by training protocol—in addition to many hours of hula practice each week—intended to ready them for the competition. This may involve a mix of cardiovascular activities, chanting, weight training, diet restrictions, and more.

The exact requirements for each hālau are determined by their respective instructor, some implementing strict rules (referred to as kapu, a Hawaiian word that has several meanings including forbidden, sacred, and code of conduct) as early as six months prior to the competition, while others wait until 30 days prior.

“I encourage a lot of walking. Some hālaus run laps,” Kumu Kamaka says. “We also go down to the beach during Merrie Monarch season to chant against the wind. And when the girls get put on kapu, there’s a lot of things that they can’t ingest.”

One month prior to Merrie Monarch, Kumu Kamaka’s hālau is expected to avoid all alcohol and processed sugars. “There are certain Hawaiian foods that we don’t eat then, too,” he says. “He‘e is octopus. But he‘e also means to fall or slip. So we abstain from that as well as anything that feeds on the bottom of the ocean.”

And on the flip side, there are culturally significant foods with a variety of health benefits that Kumu Kamaka recommends to his hālau—in preparation for Merrie Monarch, but also in general.

“The ‘ai pono’ (meaning to eat/nourish with harmony and wholeness) menu consists of foods that Hawaiian practitioners encourage,” he says. “This includes the Hawaiian staples, such as ‘ulu (breadfruit, a highly nutritious superfood that supports muscle, eye, and brain health), which also means growth and inspiration [in the Hawaiian language].”

During the week of Merrie Monarch, Kumu Kamaka says there are also some periods of fasting that help to trigger mental and physical benefits similar to intermittent fasting. “Every aspect of training prepares the body and mind to be in top shape.” And, he says, he only asks his hālau to abide by pre-Merrie Monarch protocols that he is willing to follow himself. “If I tell them they have to do something, I do it too.”

Go Behind the Scenes

Visitors to Maui can get a glimpse of the hard work that Kumu Kamaka and his hālau, Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua, put in—before the televised competition begins. Every Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 pm, his Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua practices at various locations around the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea property, an experience aptly called “Behind the Scenes of Hula.” This is not a polished performance geared toward guest entertainment; it’s a genuine practice session aimed at breaking down barriers and challenging misconceptions to create more understanding and appreciation of Hawaiian culture.

“Typically, when you see a hula dancer [in a touristic setting], she has flowers in her hair, and she’s wearing a beautiful mu‘umu‘u,” Aunty Wendy Tuivaioge, a student of hula at Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua and the director of Hawaiian programs at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, says. “But when we come out to practice, we’re wearing our hālau uniform shirts and our pa‘u skirts. You’re going to see me with no flowers in my hair. You’re going to see us doing our warmups. You’re going to see all the sweat dripping down.”

Just like in any athletic practice, you’ll also see the “coach”—in this case, Kumu Kamaka—teaching the students and making adjustments as needed.

“This isn’t a performance,” Aunty Wendy says. “So, if someone isn’t in the right position, he will stop and correct them.”

And sometimes those corrections may surprise the spectators.

“There was only one time that I yelled pretty loudly,” Kumu Kamaka says, he and Aunty Wendy both laugh as they recall that moment. “Usually, after warmups when Kumu is in teaching mode, I go and talk with the guests [that are observing the practice] because a lot of times they aren’t sure what they are watching,” Aunty Wendy says. “That one night when you did yell loudly, I was sitting with the guests, and there was a girl sitting on the floor. She turned around and said to me, ‘Oh, he’s for real. I’m a collegiate volleyball player. What he’s doing is exactly what my coach does… except you would hear all the F-bombs!’”

While Kumu Kamaka refrains from using “F-bombs” during Behind the Scenes of Hula, he does promise an otherwise authentic experience. “Our practices are as raw and real as ever. This is what it’s like behind closed doors.”

And, Aunty Wendy says, visitors frequently express their awe and appreciation for Kumu Kamaka and his hālau so generously opening the doors to their world. “That volleyball player was so happy that she was seeing something real; it hit home for her at that moment because she could relate to it,” Aunty Wendy says.

That volleyball player wasn’t the only one. Aunty Wendy and Kumu Kamaka say that the majority of guests that come to Behind the Scenes of Hula are mesmerized (and as someone who planned to only pop in for a few minutes before I was supposed to leave for a meeting, I can confirm the experience is so captivating that an entire hour passed before I could pry myself away).

“We initially thought when we started this, they’d maybe watch for 10 minutes and then be on their way,” Kumu Kamaka says. “But more often than not, they’ll stay and intently watch everything we do.”

Behind the Scenes of Hula originated during the pandemic, and, like the spectators glued to their seats during one of Kumu Kamaka’s practice sessions, the experience has stuck around much longer than anticipated.

“As we reopened the property [during the pandemic], many guests were choosing to stay on-site as a health and safety precaution,” Aunty Wendy says. “So we designed thoughtful programming to bring cultural experiences to them.” The goal of Behind the Scenes of Hula was two-fold: to provide guests with an authentic experience and support the community that was negatively impacted by the pandemic as part of the larger Live Aloha program.

“Behind the Scenes of Hula was so well received by our guests that we extended the program for several months. And then again. And again,” Aunty Wendy says. “Now, it’s been two years, and the hālau is still practicing weekly at the resort under Kumu Hula Kamaka Kūkona’s direction.”

Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea

An Authentic Experience, a Changing Narrative

From January through the beginning of April, Behind the Scenes of Hula becomes “On the Road to Merrie Monarch” as Kumu Kamaka’s hālau, one of just 20 (out of hundreds nationwide) selected to compete, prepares for the festival. “This installation of the program gives onlookers a chance to witness a practice and all the grueling work it takes to be at the top level of learning, dancing, and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture,” Aunty Wendy says.

To do so in the tourism setting—in an industry that has historically prioritized visitor entertainment over cultural preservation, often presenting an overly commercialized and sexualized image of hula rather than the culturally rich and physically demanding practice that it is—is perhaps symbolic of a larger shift. The narrative is changing (or rather, a more accurate one is being restored), this time through Native Hawaiian voices and direction.

“None of this would be possible without the permission of Kumu Kamaka,” Aunty Wendy says. “As hula dancers, before you do anything, you make sure you have permission from your kumu.”

So, what exactly compelled Kumu Kamaka to open the doors to his practice sessions? Given the long history of bad visitor behavior in Hawai‘i—that can be traced back to the initial arrival of Europeans in the 18th century and continues in the present day, it would be completely understandable if he (and every other hālau) chose to double lock and deadbolt them.

“Every kumu has their way of doing things, and some may feel differently than I do about being in public,” says Kumu Kamaka. “I’m okay with that. If you know your stuff, and you know how to protect your students, and you know exactly what it is you’re teaching, why you’re teaching, how you’re teaching… you can be anywhere in the world, you can teach it in front of anybody, and still have control of what’s being done.”

That being said, of course, visitors should respect that most kumu hula prefer private practices, and you should never assume you’re welcome (at a hula practice, a sacred site, private property, or otherwise) unless you are expressly invited.

Kumu Kamaka and Aunty Wendy have created a space where traditional hula and visitors can respectfully coexist. “Behind the Scenes of Hula has broken the myth that traditional hula is not found in resort settings,” Kumu Kamaka says. This [Behind the Scenes] is as real and traditional as it gets.”

And it’s inspiring some visitors to learn more. Kumu Kamaka and Aunty Wendy say that many come away from the experience eager to join hula lessons while in Hawai‘i, and some even seek out hula schools when they return home. The experience is helping to perpetuate the Hawaiian language and culture through a traditional practice—hula—that’s accessible to tourists.

“Working in the resort industry, a lot of times there’s so much misunderstanding,” Aunty Wendy says. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t complain unless you’re willing to be part of the solution.’ And for me, the solution is education. When the visitors see this [Behind the Scenes of Hula], they get that understanding. And what comes with the understanding is the respect—for hula and the Hawaiian culture.”

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) _ Tor Johnson

Where to Watch 

Watch Kumu Kamaka and Hālau o Ka Hanu Lehua practice at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea on Thursdays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Contact the property to confirm the time and location, as it is subject to change. The Behind the Scenes of Hula experience at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea is open to the public; you do not need to be a guest of the property to attend.

You can also watch Kumu Kamaka and his hālau compete in the televised Merrie Monarch hula competition, April 12-15, 2023, on Hawaii News Now and on the Hawaii News Now app.