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Hula dancers at Merrie Monarch compete before live audience for 1st time since COVID-19

merrie monarch 2022
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
The women of Hālau Hula Ke ʻOlu Makani O Mauna Loa practice on the famed wooden stage of the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. The Kīlauea-based hālau led by Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel will be one of only two hālau from Hawaiʻi Island to compete in this year's festival.

Hula hālau from across the islands and as far away as California descended upon Hilo this week for the 2022 Merrie Monarch Hula Festival.

It's the first time since the pandemic began two years ago that hula dancers are performing before a live audience. The host town of Hilo has been preparing for the influx of hula fans and festivalgoers.

During stage rehearsals at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium, Kīlauea Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel put the finishing touches on her dancersʻ performance.

merrie monarch 2022  Kīlauea Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel, left, with Hālau Hula Ke ʻOlu Makani O Mauna Loa.
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Kīlauea Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel, left, with Hālau Hula Ke ʻOlu Makani O Mauna Loa.

The women of Hālau Hula Ke ʻOlu Makani O Mauna Loa first competed on the famed wooden stage of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept audiences away. Manuel says crowd or no crowd, they plan to give their best performance yet.

“It is about showing your hula and what you've learned and the lineage that you have,” Manuel says. “But it's also sharing a lot of just you personally and what youʻre made of and where you come from.”

Manuelʻs hālau is one of only two hālau from Hawaiʻi Island competing in this year’s festival.

With the pandemic still present, Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu says COVID precautions remain in place, including masking, safe distancing, and vaccination requirements.

“You know hopefully next year this darn virus can go away and we can go back to normal, but for this year we are asking only those who are vaxxed they are able to come in,” Kawelu says. “But we are going to put on a show to share hula with the world.”

Kawelu’s ‘ohana has been running the hula festival for more than 50 years, coordinating hālau, organizing rehearsals, selling tickets, and more. The 82-year-old Kawelu says it can be stressful.

merrie monarch festival president Luana Kawelu
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu

“When I go through this, I'm thinking 'I don’t think I can do it anymore,' and then when you see the beauty of hula and all what the kumu and the hālau go through — the months and hours of work they put in and you see them on stage for seven minutes — it's so satisfying,” Kawelu tells Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Hawaiʻi County spokesperson Cyrus Johnasen says last yearʻs no-audience festival experience didn't have the same feel. The Hilo-native is ready for the safe return of hula fans.

“When Merrie Monarch is in town, regardless of peoples’ moods leading up to the day of, everything becomes about ‘ohana, about culture, about living hula, it’s about being who we are and showcasing that on a world stage,” Johnasen says.

As for Kumu Meleana, she says the pandemic pause has allowed her students to really focus on their craft and the festival will be an opportunity to inspire others to take up the practice.

“Being a child of this ʻāina and being in this community, we are always very aware of what hula does and what hula is, that it sparks interest in the next generation,” Manuel tells HPR.

The 59th Annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival kicked off Wednesday with Hōʻike Night, and the competition began Thursday with the Miss Aloha Hula contest. Hula kahiko is Friday at 6 p.m. and hula ʻauana is Saturday at 6 p.m.

The Merrie Monarch Arts & Crafts Fair will also be open Wednesday through Saturday at the Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium & Butler Buildings. The royal parade will be on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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