The Renewal of Hula

Each Spring people gather in Hilo for the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, a celebration of hula. The event perpetuates many aspects of Hawaiian culture.

Hawaiians used hula with oli (chants) and mo‘olelo (legends) to tell stories. The movements of hula conveyed ideas about creation, genealogy, migrations, and traditions. Ceremonies at a heiau, or stone platform temple, often included dances to honor a Hawaiian divinity or prominent aliʻi (chief).

In the 19th century Christian missionaries sought to change the local religion and culture of the islands. Some of the missionaries viewed hula as immoral. Kaʻahumanu, a Christian convert and queen regent, banned public hula performances in 1830. People widely ignored the law and hula continued to be taught and practiced in private, especially in rural areas.

Moʻi (King) David Laʻamea Kalākaua encouraged the revival of many cultural practices such as he‘e nalu (surfing) and lua (martial arts) during his reign from 1874 to 1891. The King encouraged hula groups and invited them to perform at ʻIolani Palace even as opponents and foreigners criticized him.

In the 20th century, groups began to offer hula performances for tourists and American soldiers. In 1971 Hilo residents, under the leadership of Dottie Thompson, made hula competitions the focus of the Merrie Monarch Festival. Hula hālau (schools) from across the state and around the world perform kahiko, or traditional dance, and ‘auana, or modern hula. Audiences watch in person or view TV coverage of the competitions.

The Lyman Museum preserves many hula-related photographs. To see more, the Archives is open for research by appointment. Learn more at

In 1874, legislators elected David Kalākaua as monarch. Focused on the Kingdom’s civic and economic development, the King also traveled the world. Admirers called him the “Merry Monarch” for his love of art, music, and luxury. In this full-length portrait the King is wearing an elaborate uniform with sash, medals, and a sword.

This photo shows kumu hula ʻIoane Hohopa (later ʻŪkēkē) (c. 1833-1903) with four hula dancers including his wife Mary Kapule and his sister-in-law Anne Kapule. Kalākaua invited the group to perform nightly at his coronation celebration in February 1883.
The advertisement sign reads: “Hawaii’s Famous Entertainers: Queenie & David Kaili with Alfred Alohikea and the Hula Hula Twins, Helene and Hattie.” The group performed at Moʻoheau Park for a June 29, 1932 carnival complete with curiosities, a Ferris wheel, and fire-eaters!
This sheet music features hula dancers and musicians. Harry Owens composed the music as the theme song for “Hawaii Calls”, a radio program that began in 1935. The sheet music was published by the Royal Music Publishing Company in Honolulu in 1936.
A large hula group on stage in Hilo’s Kalākaua Park for the KHBC radio broadcast of a May Day celebration, ca. 1942.
This 1963 photo features the first Merry Monarch royal court with Kalani Schutte as King and Doreen Henderson as Queen. Helene Hale, Chairwoman for the County of Hawaiʻi, recognized the county’s economic struggles hindered by the devastation of the 1960 tsunami and the decline of the sugar industry. In 1963 Hale led the effort for the annual festival to boost the Island economy.
A group of young hula dancers, possibly at Hilo’s Naniloa Hotel on January 24, 1964. Left to right: Deedee Makaio, Bobbilyn Akoi, Josephine “Sweetheart” Kepaa Mahi, Sherry Kalua, Joann Andrade, Judy Akoi, and Wanza Tripp.
Merry Monarch Festival official souvenir program & guide, 1965. Richard Smart, owner of Parker Ranch, served as Grand Marshal for the parade. The event also featured a coronation re-enactment, hula performances, and the Hawaii Calls orchestra.