60th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival comes to an end with a night to remember in Hilo

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The Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium on the third and final night of the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition on April 15, 2023. (Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

The scent of plumeria, maile, fresh ti leaf and pua kenikeni permeated the open-air Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-purpose Stadium in Hilo.

Live music resonated throughout the structure and the energy of spectators cheering and clapping echoed throughout the stadium Saturday night during the final competition of the 60th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival. Twenty-three hālau took the stage for hula ‘auana (modern hula) performances, followed by the announcement of the winners.

“The beauty, the mana, everything that brings Hawai’i together is powerful,” said Kapi’o Sibayton of Kea’au.

This year marked the full return of the annual event since the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the competition in 2020 and forced gathering restrictions in 2021 and 2022. The festival is organized by the Kawelu family with the first competition taking place in 1964.

Kapi‘o Sibayton was at the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition with two of her life-long friends, Lokelani Thompson-Spencer and E’olani Kahawai’i. (Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

Hālau with as few as five dancers to some with more than 20 captivated the audience.


During the Kahiko competition, ancient hula was on full display. Many of the contestants performed with hula instruments, including puili, kala‘au and ‘ili ‘ili. The dancers displayed their skill with the art of hula and also the Hawaiian language with their oli [chants].

On Saturday, the grace and poise of the modern hula swept the stage. The kāne performed powerful and flirtatious numbers. The wāhine glided across the stage in grace and precision.

The groups presented their hula as they moved into various formations around the stage, engaging the crowd at every angle.

Colleen Kawelu is granddaughter to Aunty Luana Kawelu, president of the Merrie Monarch Festival. Kawelu’s mother, Aunty Kathy, will take over running the festival.

Kawelu said it’s been exciting to have the Merrie Monarch back in full force for the first time since 2019.


Kawelu’s great grandmother, Aunty Dottie Thompson, took over the festival in 1968 when it was on the brink of ending. Under Thompson’s direction, the festival pivoted to replicate the ideals of King Kalākaua (the “Merrie Monarch”), who worked to revitalize Hawaiians and their culture. Colleen Kawelu said she feels honored to be part of her grandmother’s legacy.

For Kawelu, she said the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition is “like coming home. It’s a big house we share with our community of the hula family.”

Sibayton was at the competition with two of her life-long friends, Lokelani Thompson-Spencer and E’olani Kahawai’i. This was the first time the women attended the live competition together.

Sibayton said being here with her friends while watching hula is exhilarating. 

All three women came to the competition Saturday wearing matching kimonos with flowers in their hair. They all are hula dancers and have a great appreciation for the art.


“We know the dedication it takes to do this,” Kahawai’i said.

Sibayton said the aloha spirit is felt strong at the competition.

Denise Cashman was with her daughter, 22-year-old Kaylin Cashman, at Saturday’s competition. They flew from O’ahu to attend the event for the first time.

“It’s very emotional,” Denise Cashman said. “You smell the flowers. We’re close enough that you can see the expressions on the dancers’ faces.”

Kaylin Cashman, who dances for a hālau on O’ahu, said she has ambitions to perform on the iconic stage.

“It’s a great experience,” she said. “You can really see and feel the story.”

Keli’i Wagner of Waimānalo also was attending the world-renowned hula competition for the first time.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s all beautiful. The language, the dance, the positive vibration is unreal.”

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