When someone mentions “Hawaii,” several images might come to mind: white, sandy beaches, sweet-smelling tropical flowers, whole roasted pigs and, of course, hula.
But even today, there are those who still misunderstand what hula is all about, and that its place in Hawaiian history is about so much more than grass skirts and coconut tops.
Embedded deeply throughout generations, hula is the living history of the indigenous people of Hawaii. In ancient times, there was no written language so hula was the record of legends, traditions and family lineage. It told stories of royalty, of gods and goddesses, of significant battles, and everyday life.
It has been passed from father to son, grandmother to granddaughter, teacher to student. More than just a simple narrative, hula is full of emotion. Each movement has a meaning that helps to share these important stories — a legacy that is stronger today than ever before.
However, there was a time when Christianity dominated Hawaiian culture and all forms of the hula began to disappear. It was banned in the 1820s and remained a forbidden art until King David Kalakaua restored the hula along with other cultural practices and traditions during his reign from 1874 -1891.
Nicknamed the “Merrie Monarch” for his love of music, parties and fine food, he once said, “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”
These words still resonate with the people of Hawaii. The annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo was created in honor of King David Kalakaua more than 50 years ago. Drawing thousands of hula enthusiasts from around the world to the small town each year, the week-long Merrie Monarch Festival showcases the best halau hula (hula dance groups) from around the world in a three-night competition.
Hula — which in the mid-1900s also lured tourists to Hawaii’s shores with a kitschy version of the dance — has regained its dignity. Instead of mostly grass skirt, coconut top-clad, hip-shaking women, it has once again become a proud part of Hawaiian culture. It’s also a welcoming art that can be learned by non-natives — men, women and children —as well.
Today, dancers who are serious about hula can be found across the United States and around the world in places such as Europe and Japan.
Kumu hula (hula masters) are passing on dances they learned from their own teachers before them, but are also creating new dances and chants rooted in traditional forms.
Most kumu hula typically instruct students in both hula kahiko (traditional hula) and hula auana (modern hula). Musical accompaniment is also an essential component.
In hula kahiko, instruments including drums (pahu) and gourd drums (ipu or ipu heke) are played by chanters who keep the rhythm for dancers. In addition to their hands, the dancers themselves can also utilize other instruments to tell ancient stories of power, sensuality, nature and the gods. These instruments include feathered rattles (uli uli) bamboo rattles (puili) and even rocks (ili ili) that are clicked together like castanets.
Instruments like the ukulele and guitar are the distinguishing sounds of hula auana dances, which are mainly sung in Hawaiian but can also include English lyrics, as well.
Costuming for both styles vary greatly, but it should be known that every element of a hula performance is chosen with intent. A pink flower adornment in the hair, a plumeria lei around the neck, a Victorian-style dress, or a patterned pa‘u (skirt) are selected not for mere beauty but as a representation of the story being told.
Everything in hula is done with purpose. With its practice, there is mana (life force) found not only in the words of the chant or song but also through the energy of the dancers.
Hula instills a deep respect for tradition and contributes perhaps more to the perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture than anything else. It teaches those who want to learn about the language, histories, art and values of the Hawaiian people.