Where to See the Best Real Hula in Hawaii

Islands photographer Jen Judge takes us inside Hawaii's most iconic hula event, the Merrie Monarch Festival.

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See real hula in Hawaii
These are guarded moments at the Merrie Monarch Festival, Hawaii’s most iconic celebration of hula. Read interview with photographer Jen Judge, Behind the Scenes: Hawaii’s Real Hula »Jen Judge
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They didn't want my camera here. Event officials said so, in Hawaiian. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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Hula schools (halaus) prepare all year for this. These dancer's even make their own garments and leis. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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A dress check before going on stage involves a final lei given by the halau's headmaster (kuma). Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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It's a tense process. A single lei leaf falling on stage deducts points. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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To my eye, the difference between "hotel hula" and genuine hula is in the movements. These dancers float on stage. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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Each gesture tells stories that span centuries in a ghostly levitation of sorts. Other hulas I had seen are a series of poses—tainted by tourism. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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This is why, as an outsider, gaining access took time, and details like this orange lei, made from thousands of flower petals, emerged slowly. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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I also learned that the dancer's motivation wasn't the competition. Makanani placed third in Miss Aloha Hula, but her smile said she'd won. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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So did the halau's deep respect for nature. If I shot a fern leaf, I had to return it to the forest. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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The real draw was the happenings after the festival, during a gathering on a volcano. They danced at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park through light rain and sunlight that felt scripted. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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It had been stormy all morning. Their dancing seemed to open the sky into bursts of sunlight. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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Paying respects to Pele, the goddes of Hawaii's volcanoes, marked the highlight of the dancer's journey with their halau. Back to Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge
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Kula Mapu granted me a portrait of Makani, whose smile says it all, though she declined a request to display a hula movement—reminding me hula isn't for show, and each movement carries deep meaning. Read interview with photographer Jen Judge, Behind the Scenes: Hawaii's Real Hula »Jen Judge