introduction aloHa ameriCa
Many hula dancers say that it is their lifelong dream to appear in the
Merrie Monarch Hula Festival or, better yet, to win a trophy at the
world- renowned hula competition named in honor of King David
Kalākaua, the nineteenth- century patron of traditional Hawaiian
arts. Since 1971, this prestigious hula showcase has taken place at
the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium in the town of Hilo, Hawai‘i. I ac-
companied the hula troupe Hālau o Pua Kukui and its kumu
hula (hula master), Ed Collier, as they prepared for the competition
in 2006. Several months of intensive practice culminates in three
nights of hula before a panel of judges, cheering sellout crowds, and
live television cameras. Hālau hula (hula troupes) must be invited to
participate, and each year twenty or more vie for recognition as the
best in competitive hula.
During the week of competition, I bunked with the hālau’s women
dancers in a cabin a few miles away from Kīlauea Volcano. The back-
stage rhythms and preparations—the ironing of costumes, gossiping,
the making of flower lei—were familiar to me because I had danced
in smaller Honolulu competitions in the 1990s. While setting their
hair in braids and curlers for that evening’s performances, the danc-
ers, whose ages ranged from midteens to midthirties, turned on the
mtv reality show My Super Sweet Sixteen. In each episode, a girl and
her family spend fortunes on sixteenth- birthday celebrations. The
Merrie Monarch hula competition is a more modest and culturally
specific version of this rite of passage, but many dancers and their
families approach the contest with similar once- in-a-lifetime fervor,
investing time and resources in this public display.1
Watching the tv birthday girl squeal as she received a new Lexus,
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