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Hula

By Angeline Shaka

Hula is Hawaiʻi’s indigenous dance form; it is also a way of life. Underneath the surface of hula’s gestures lies a cultural system that nurtures and sustains Native Hawaiian people, reminding them of their collective history and their identity as Hawaiʻi’s indigenous inhabitants. Unlike other dance practices in which movement can exist separately from music, traditional hula depends on the harmonious interdependence of poetic lyric with embellishing gesture: its dances affirm Godly and ancestral connections while also establishing the social, natural, philosophical, and spiritual relationship of Native Hawaiiansto their ʻāina (land). Hula dancers bring to life stories of Hawaiʻi’sgods and aliʻi (chiefs), celebrated as fearsome warriors, passionate lovers, and revered leaders. Hula’s popularity travels far beyond its native shores; Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike—across the continental U.S., in Mexico, throughout Europe, as well as in Asia—dance hula in hālau (formal hula schools) or recreationally at gym and community center fitness classes.

Today hula is typically characterized as either kahiko (ancient hula) or ‘auana (modern hula), two terms that effectively function as umbrellas under which numerous song and dance styles are placed.1Kahiko hulas are performed to percussive accompaniment, the ipuheke (double gourd) or the pahu drum (shark skin drum). ‘Auana mele hula (hula songs) are composed following Western melodic structures. These so-called modern hulas are accompanied by stringed instruments such as the ukulele and various guitars: bass, slack key, or lap steel guitar.2 While kahiko is more closely associated with hula’s spiritual traditions dating from before Western contact in the eighteenth century, ʻauana hula, which dates from the reign of King David Kālakaua (r. 1874-1891), emphasizes hula’s entertainment qualities. In their individual ways, however, both hula styles trace ancient Hawaiian genealogies, to honor nature’s procreative and destructive cycles.

Skilled hula dancers perform in unison, using their torsos, heads, arms, and hands to translate the poetic lyric, the kaona of mele hula, into imagery. Composers use kaona to embed powerful blessings into their songs and their chants (Pukui 1983, 129).3 The hula dancers’ footwork, meanwhile, stays closely connected to the ground, following the hoʻopaʻa’s rhythmic and vocal accompaniment. It is through the combination of these various aspects—an expressive upper body whose gestures highlight certain meanings of a song’s lyric with a rhythmical complement in the lower body’s footwork and hip movements—that hula dancers animate hula’s multiple expressive layers of meaning and create hula’s “heartbeat.”4

Origin stories

Several of the Hawaiian Islands proudly claim to be hula’s birthplace, recounting hula’s beginnings via myths peopled by dancing gods and humans. According to one myth cycle from Hawaiʻi Island, the goddess Hiʻiaka is the first hula dancer. Having been taught the form by her human friend Hopoe, the first kumu hula (hula teacher), Hiʻiaka dances to appease her sister, volcano goddess Pele. In another legend, the goddess Kapoʻulakinaku (Kapo) is said to have established hula’s protocol, a series of rules for teaching, learning, and dancing hula. Still a third origin story links hula’s beginning with Laʻamaikahiki (Laka), on Moloka’i. All of these stories and their protagonists have been incorporated into hula practice. Hula dancers honor each of the personas linked to hula: Kapo and Laka are the divine patrons of hula, while many mele hula are dedicated to the tales of Hiʻiaka and her fiery sister, Pele.

Performance and Training Contexts

Before Captain James Cook’s self-proclaimed discovery of the Hawaiian Island chain in 1778, hula had at least two different uses in society: to intensify certain religious rites taking place in heiau (special places of worship), and to amuse the Hawaiian people—often while recognizing the distinction of aliʻi, who were considered to be descended from gods themselves. In both religious and entertainment contexts hula reflected Hawaiians’ complex hierarchical society organized by a set of sacred laws called kapu, which were intended to protect and cultivate mana (divinely ordained power). In addition to establishing the time’s social conventions, kapu emulated a parallel arrangement of the universe’s godly hierarchies. Kapu designated every action and relationship within society (earthly and heavenly): what and with whom one could eat; where and when one could plant or fish or harvest; how one would worship; who was aliʻi.

Everything—animate and inanimate—was (and still is) imbued with mana; those with close links to the gods, like the aliʻi, possessed more mana than others. At the same time, however, mana could be lost if proper care was not taken. The rules of kapu were set into place to protect those with greater mana—hence the sexes ate separately and people of differing classes, especially the lower classes, were required to take special precautions, often on pain of death, not to defile someone of higher rank.

Hula dancers were similarly ruled by the laws of kapu. Upon entering hālau to learn hula, dancers committed themselves to Kapo and Laka. Earliest training practices consisted of learning through ritual ceremony at a kuahu (altar) dedicated to all of hula’s gods under the expert guidance of a kumu hula. Hula novitiates left their families to study and live, devoting themselves fully to their lessons. The training culminated with the ‘uniki, a graduation ritual during which the student would, for the first time, dance in public. After ‘uniki the pupil, who would always remain a devotee of Laka/Kapo, was permitted to perform widely. Often these hula poʻe (hula people) would join troupes who were “on call” to provide entertainment and to foster an increase of mana for a particular chief.

 Profound Cultural Change

Among the many monarchs to rule in Hawaiʻi, King Kamehameha (ca. 1758-1819) stands out as perhaps the most powerful. Nicknamed “Kamehameha the Great,” he conquered the ruling families of each of the islands to establish the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1810—thirty years after Western contact commenced. The presence of these seafarers—whalers and traders— initiated an era marked by profound change to Hawaiian culture in the form of new material goods, new social practices and customs, new opportunities for trade and travel, and of course, new and deadly diseases that killed anywhere from 265,000 -865,000 people from 1778-1823.5 With Kamehameha’s death in 1819 the young Liholiho (Kamehameha II) abolished kapu under pressure from Regent Queen Kaʻahumanu, plunging Hawaiians into deeper chaos. Liholiho’s actions also inadvertently facilitated his people’s conversion to Christianity when, in 1820, a company of Protestant missionaries arrived.

Armed with a new value system and with writing (a fascinating and powerful technology that was new for Hawaiʻi’s orally-based society)6, the missionaries’ timing couldn’t have been better for instituting their “civilizing” goals: instilling a Protestant work ethic and cultivating puritan morals in Native Hawaiians—morals which led the newcomers to express dismay and revulsion at the supposedly licentious and savage hula dancing. The missionaries’ arrival marked the beginning of their repeated attempts to persuade Hawaiian authorities to prohibit public hula performance,7 and then later to use their significant influence in shaping Kingdom governmental policy with further attempts to ban hula. Unable to fully abolish hula’s practice, their efforts succeeded only in pushing hula performance underground or to remote areas, far from rapidly growing urban centers.

In 1893 a group of American businessmen staged a coup, forcing Queen Liliʻuokalani (1838-1917) to abdicate her leadership of the Hawaiian kingdom. By 1898 President William McKinley annexed the newly formed Republic of Hawaiʻi to the U.S., and by the early 1900s these businessmen, the children of missionaries, began to popularize a new vision of hula and the hula dancer—the exotically sensuous “hula girl.”

Tourist Hula

The “hula girl” is the most visible persona associated with hula and with Hawaiʻi. Co-created during the first half of the 20th century by a nascent tourist industry and Hollywood’s cinema, the hula dancer image was adapted by both industries for their own purposes. “Hula girls” on pictures and postcards from 1913 have been described as “[running] the gamut from beautiful and alluring to sexual, to pornographic” (Desmond 1999, 48). Her lithe figure and brown skin was crafted to be both enchanting and refreshing to foreigners who basked in her warm aloha (welcome) while they lounged on her sun-kissed beaches. Until the latter part of the 20th century hula was overwhelmingly defined as a feminine activity; males who danced were considered effeminate and commonly stereotyped as homosexual. Meanwhile touristic demands and hapa haole performances threatened to eclipse ancient hulas that were not as prevalent in more commercial venues.

Contemporary Cultural Contexts

Despite hula’s troubled colonial history with Christianity and the West, hula remains a vibrant celebration of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) history and identity—and today is performed by both sexes. It continues to evolve, accommodating new influences and reproducing traditional practices. In addition to the many tourist venues where people can encounter hula, other avenues for experiencing traditional hula include hula competitions, Hawaiian/Polynesian cultural festivals, and concert hula performances. Much of this vitality can be linked with the civil rights era’s “Hawaiian cultural renaissance” in the 1970s, when practitioners who were trained under revered kumu hulas like Maiki Aiu Lake (1925-1984)8, Iolani Luahine (1915-1978), Edith Kanakaʻole (1913-1979), George Kanahele (1930-2000), and Kauʻi Zuttermeister (1908-1994) began advocating to revitalize traditional Hawaiian customs (in particular hula and ancient navigational practices) that were in danger of being lost in the face of continued colonial policies that devalued Hawaiian practices while prioritizing U.S. interests.9 The Hawaiian cultural renaissance marked a turning point, initiating multiple cultural and political efforts aimed at reclaiming Native Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination.

Competition and Concert Hula

One of the key cultural efforts to come out of the Hawaiian renaissance was the Merrie Monarch festival, named for Hawaiʻi’s penultimate monarch and champion of hula, King David Kālakaua.10 Known today as the “Olympics of hula,” the annual week-long cultural festival and hula competition located in Hilo, Hawaiʻi has become the standard by which traditional hula is defined and reproduced. Hālau from across Hawaiʻi and the U.S. mainland practice diligently to compete with one another in three categories: Miss Aloha Hula, hula kahiko, and hula ʻauana. Winners of the always sold-out event return home triumphant, having proven their dedication and expertise in expressing the art form’s esoteric knowledge.

Unlike the “hula girls” of Hollywood and the tourist industry, these hula dancers are strong females and masculine men. Their dances evoke the divine mana legendarily associated with Hawaiʻi’s most powerful gods, goddesses, and aliʻi, as hula’s cultural practitioners use the competition stage to continually define, in their own terms, what kinds of vocabulary and choreography and song selection best produce traditional hula for contemporary practitioners and viewers.

A more recently introduced hula event occurs on the concert stage. These popular evening-length productions provide more flexibility than competition hula for kumu hula to stage new narratives or to re-imagine ancient mythologies through their unique hula choreographies. Kumu hula who are well-versed in traditional hula craft Native-inspired spectacles to dazzle and educate contemporary Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian audiences.

The Future of Hula

There are two famous Hawaiian proverbs: Nānā I Ke Kumu (Look to the Source) and ʻAʻohe pau I ke ʻike I ka hālau hoʻokāhi (All knowledge is not taught in the same school). The first reminds one to keep sight of one’s roots, i.e.: the protocols and lessons imparted by one’s kumu hula, and to keep sight of one’s genealogical—human and divine—roots. The second reminds us that there are many valid sources of knowledge. Both sayings contain important reminders for today’s hula poʻe (as well as for those researching hula): hula is a dynamic art form that has always evolved to accommodate changing times. Hula also, however, continues to be “the sinew by which Hawaiian culture [survives]” (www.edithkanakaolefoundation.org). Hula roots Native Hawaiians to their genealogical pasts via the ʻāina and their ancestors.

As the Hawaiian diaspora and hula’s popularity continue to grow, teachers, dancers, viewers, and researchers alike are tasked with understanding their own kuleana (responsibility) in dancing hula: they are asked to remember the lessons of Hawaiʻi’s past while translating these lessons for future generations.


NOTES

2 While kahiko is more closely associated with hula’s spiritual traditions dating from before Western contact in the eighteenth

1 In her monograph Sacred Hula: The Hula ʻĀlaʻapapa in Historical Perspective (1998), Amy Stillman describes the hula ʻālaʻapapa, a sacred hula form performed to the ipuheke. Hula ‘ōlapa describes another ancient hula form also accompanied by the ipuheke, dating from the late 19th century. 2 These ʻauana hula forms include the Kalākaua era’s hula kuʻi and the “hapa haole hulas” from 1910s and 1930s-1960s. Hapa haole hulas and music are songs with themes taken from Hawaiian culture that are performed in English or in a combination of both languages. century, ʻauana hula, which dates from the reign of King David Kālakaua (r. 1874-1891), emphasizes hula’s entertainment qualities. In their individual ways, however, both hula styles trace ancient Hawaiian genealogies, to honor nature’s procreative and destructive cycles. Skilled hula dancers perform in unison, using their torsos, heads, arms, and hands to translate the poetic lyric, the kaona of mele hula, into imagery. Composers use kaona to embed powerful blessings into their songs and their chants (Pukui 1983, 129).

3 The hula dancers’ footwork, meanwhile, stays closely connected to the ground, following the hoʻopaʻa’s rhythmic and vocal accompaniment. It is through the combination of these various aspects—an expressive upper body whose gestures highlight certain meanings of a song’s lyric with a rhythmical complement in the lower body’s footwork and hip movements—that hula dancers animate hula’s multiple expressive layers of meaning and create hula’s “heartbeat.”4 Origin Stories Several of the Hawaiian Islands proudly claim to be hula’s birthplace, recounting hula’s beginnings via myths peopled by dancing gods and humans. According to one myth cycle from Hawaiʻi Island, the goddess Hiʻiaka is the first hula dancer. Having been taught the form by her human friend Hopoe, the first kumu hula (hula teacher), Hiʻiaka dances to appease her sister, volcano goddess Pele. In another legend, the goddess Kapoʻulakinaku (Kapo) is said to have established hula’s protocol, a series of rules for teaching, learning, and dancing hula. Still a third origin story links hula’s beginning with Laʻamaikahiki (Laka), on Moloka’i. All of these stories and their protagonists have been incorporated into hula practice. Hula dancers

3 According to Hawaiian custom language contains power. It is a power that can be unleashed through one’s sounding of a word. If properly sounded or used, words initiate healing but if spoken or combined improperly, the same words could be injurious.

4 King David Kalākaua (1836-1891) famously said hula was the “language and heartbeat of the people.” He meant that hula is the expression of the Hawaiian soul, and of life itself.

5 Silva, Noenoe K. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004: 24. 6 Within six months of their arrival missionaries created the Hawaiian orthography. The Hawaiian alphabet consists of 13 letters: a e i o u h k l m n p w and a backward apostrophe (‘) called an ‘okina.

7 In 1830 Queen Kaʻahumanu attempted just this by banning public hula performances on the grounds that hula was immoral. 

8 Maiki Aiu Lake is considered by many to be the “mother” of the Hawaiian renaissance. For more on kumu Maiki Aiu Lake and her influence on the Hawaiian renaissance, see web resources for a link to her hālau’s website. 9 This is not intended to be a complete list of kumu hula whose dedicated practice ultimately inspired the cultural renaissance. 10 David Kalākaua was nicknamed the Merrie Monarch for his great love of entertainment and hula. He is celebrated and remembered for inviting hula back to the royal court for his inauguration and his birthday jubilee celebrations marking the first time hula was performed in court since 1830.


Angeline Shaka is a dancer and Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at Texas Woman’s University. Originally from Hawaiʻi Island, her research focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first century hula productions, considering cultural revitalizations and reclamations of various hula traditions since the Hawaiian cultural renaissance in Hawaiʻi as well as in its California diaspora. She received her Ph.D. in Culture and Performance from UCLA and her M.A. in Performance Studies from NYU. 

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Bacon, Pat Namaka, and Nathan Napoka, eds. Na Mele Welo: Songs of Our Heritage Selections from the Roberts Mele Collection in Bishop Museum, Honolulu. Bishop Museum Special Publication 88. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1995.

Barrere, Dorothy B., Mary Kawena Pukui, and Marion Kelly. Hula: Historical Perspectives. Pacific Anthropological Records 30. Honolulu, HI: Bishop Museum, 1980.

Buck, Elizabeth. Paradise Remade: The Politics of Culture and History in Hawaii. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

de Silva, Kihei. “He Ma ’i No ‘Iolani | Ka’iwakīloumoku’.” Literary Archive. Ka’iwakiloumoku: Hawaiian Cultural Center, n.d http://apps.ksbe.edu/kaiwakiloumoku/kaleinamanu/essays/he_mai_no_iolani.

Desmond, Jane. Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

---. “Invoking ‘The Native’: Body Politics in Contemporary Hawaiian Tourist Shows.” TDR (1988-) 41, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 83–109.

Diamond, Heather A. American Aloha: Cultural Tourism and the Negotiation of Tradition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

Imada, Adria. “Hawaiians on Tour: Hula Circuits Through the American Empire.” American Quarterly 56, no. 1 (2004): 111–149.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. Hula Pahu: Hawaiian Drum Dances: Ha’a and Hula Pahu Sacred Movements. Bishop Museum in Anthropology, No. 3. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1993.

---. “Recycling Tradition: A Hawaiian Case Study.” Dance Chronicle 27, no. 3 (2004): 293–311.

Kamahele, Momiala. “Ilio’ulaokalani: Defending Native Hawaiian Culture.” Amerasia Journal 26, no. 2 (2000): 38–65.

Kanahele, Pualani Kanakaʻole. Holo Mai Pele. Edited by D. Māhealani Dudoit. Translated by Kuʻulei Higashi. Honolulu: HI & Hilo: HI: Pacific Islanders in Communications & Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation, 2001.

Keali’inohomoku, Joann W. “Hula Space and Its Transformations.” Dance Research Annual 15 (1985): 11–21.

“Merry Monarch Remembered - Hula Dancing of Hawaii”, n.d. http://www.coffeetimes.com/apr97.htm.

Osorio, Jonathan. Dismembering Lāhui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, E.W. Haertig, M.D., and Catherine A. Lee. Nānā I Ke Kumu: Look to the Source Volume II. Honolulu: Hui Hānai, an auxiliary of Queen Liliʻuokalani Children’s Center, 1972.

---. Nānā I Ke Kumu: Look to the Source Volume I. Honolulu: Hui Hānai an auxiliary of the Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Center, 1972.

--- & Samuel H. Elbert. Hawaiian Dictionary Revised and Enlarged Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

--- trans. ʻŌlelo Noʻeau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication No. 71. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.

--- . Folktales of Hawaii: He Mau Ka’ao Hawaii. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1995.

Silva, Noenoe K. “He Kanawai E Hoʻopau I Na Hula Kuolo Hawaii: The Political Economy of        Banning the Hula.” The Hawaiian Journal of History, 34 (2000): 29-48.

Stillman, Amy. “Hawaiian Hula Competitions: Event, Repertoire, Performance,Tradition.” Journal of American Folklore 109, no. 434 (1996): 357–380.

---. Sacred Hula: The Hula ʻĀlaʻapapa in Historical Perspective. Bulletin in Anthropology 8. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1998.

---. “Re-Membering the History of the Hawaiian Hula.” In Cultural Memory: Reconfiguring History and Identity in the Postcolonial Pacific, edited by Jeanette Marie Mageo, 187-204. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

---. “On the Kuleana of a Kumu Hula.” University of Michigan, Amy K. Stillman, January 5, 2008. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~akstill/Publications/KumuHulav4.htm.

Online Resources

Edith Kanakaole Foundation, Hālau O Kekuhi. http://www.edithkanakaolefoundation.org

Halau Hula O Maiki http://hulahawaii.com/MaikiAiu.html

Merrie Monarch Foundation http://www.merriemonarch.com/

Moving Image

Flanary, Lisette Marie & Siebens. American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii, DVD, Documentary. Bluestocking Films, 2003.

---. Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula, DVD, Documentary, Lehua Films. 2007.

Halau O Kekuhi at Wolftrap, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PSKdZG5u2E&feature=youtube_gdata

Kodak Hawaii Hula Show - 1962, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWqI4zUuZpw&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Men of Waimapuna - Merrie Monarch 1980, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnDE8RStqPE&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Mugge, Robert. Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture. DVD, Documentary. Winstar Home Entertainment, 1989.

Poliʻahu Hula Kahiko Merrie Monarch 2011 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcWagnUPSSA

Hula Halau O Kamuela Hula ʻAuana Merrie Monarch 2001 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0Xg2nNdSzA