Every year a handful of halau who are not competing in the Merrie Monarch Festival's kahiko or ‘auana night are invited to perform at Ho‘ike.
This year the event kicked off with Hilo's own Hālau o Kekuhi, under the direction of kumu hula Nālani Kanaka‘ole. Keeping with tradition, the hālau opens Hō‘ike night every year.
Returning to the stage from Japan was Hālau Nā Mamo I Kaleinani under the direction of kumu hula Seiko Kaleinanikauikawekiu Okamoto, a Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy graduate who danced for kumu hula Aloha Dalire for years.
A crowd favorite was Te Waka Huia, led by Tāpeta & Annetye Wehi. The Maori group from Auckland has won Aotearoa's national kapa haka championship five times. The audience roared with appreciation when they presented a feather cloak to Merrie Monarch Festival Chair Aunty Luana Kawelu.
For the 50th celebration last year, Hō‘ike was ticketed but this year it returned to being a free event open to the public making it the place to be for anyone in Hilo. Family members, friends and fans didn't take any chances the stadium would run out of room and started lining up at the gates before dawn.
The Kalua family has been faithfully camping out for a seat before 5 a.m. for the past decade.
"We stay here all day and we enjoy each other's company and it's all about no place else that it can be done, but here in Hilo, Hawai‘i," said Sheralyn Kalua.
"Merrie Monarch just stands for so much for Hawaiian people like me -- it's a symbol of hope and prosperity for the future and it's just amazing to see what this event has become over the years," Kalae Ke, who was the first person in line this year at 4:30 a.m. "I want to be right there in the front row cheering everybody on."
This year the National Anthem and Hawai‘i Pono‘i were performed by the Kamehameha School Hawai‘i Campus concert glee club.
Miss Aloha Hula starts at 5:45 Thursday night, followed by the kahiko competition Friday and 'auana and awards on Saturday.