Hula is much more than a form of entertainment for visitors. The Hawaiian dance also represents a way of life. The ancient art, which tells stories through hand motions and gently swaying hips, emerged long before Westerners settled on the Islands and was typically performed as a tribute to Hawaiian deities, such as Laka (hula goddess). This style of hula, called kahiko, is executed without music and is accompanied by an oli (chant), as well as instruments like pahu (drums), pu‘ili (bamboo rattles), ‘uli ‘uli (feathered gourd rattles) and ipu (hollowed gourds).
When missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i during the 1800s, they banned this form of self-expression in public, claiming it induced sin. Natives still found a way to practice in secret and perpetuate their art, but it wasn’t until later that century that King David Kalakaua (the last reigning king of Hawai‘i) insisted the art form be brought back into the public eye. The contemporary style of hula that people are more familiar with today came about after this resurgence. Called ‘auana, the style is accompanied by mele (songs) and includes modern-day instruments like guitars and ‘ukulele.
Now there are halau hula (Hawaiian dance schools) on every island that teach students not only how to perform, but the history and mo‘olelo (stories) of their practice. They learn about traditional oli and mele that preserve the history of Hawai‘i and its people, as well as the significance of sacred places. Males and females of all ages are taught everything from ‘olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) to the different clothing ensembles that correspond to each dance, and the native flora used to adorn their outfits.
There are plenty of opportunities for visitors to watch and experience halau hula perform throughout the year across the state, including various seasonal events like the Merrie Monarch Festival on Hawai‘i Island. Ongoing events like lu‘au (Hawaiian feasts) also feature hula, but more often than not, the spicy, fiery dances performed at these venues are of Tahitian rather than Hawaiian origin.
Photos: Hula dancer by Pete Saloutos; ‘Uli ‘Uli by hrk422