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‘Iolani Luahine (1915-1978)

By Irlanda Esteli Jacinto

Born Harriet Lanihau Makekau, ‘Iolani Luahine (1915-1978) is revered for her efforts to ensure the preservation of the hula as a sacred form of dance; she is considered to be the foremost kumu hula (teacher) of the kahiko (ancient) hula, and one of the best hula dancers of the 20th century. Born on January 31, 1915 in the village of Nāpo’opo’o, Luahine was the youngest of five daughters. Her family was part of a lineage of dancers and keepers of ancient Hawaiian hula. The name ‘Iolani was bequeathed to her when as a child she was inflicted with an illness in her eye. It is said that her family was instructed by a kahuna nui (traditional Hawaiian seer) to rename the child ‘Iolani (her name can be interpreted to mean  “heavenly bird”).1 The illness receded after her name was changed.  As a small child, Luahine was adopted by her great aunt Keahi Luahine Sylvester and moved to Honolulu. In a 1975 article in the New York Times, Luahine explained that adoption in Hawaiian culture is one of the most treasured customs, “to express appreciation, you give someone a child, even if they were not related. It was the highest gift--not money” (Kisselgoff, 1975). It was her father’s wish for her to be raised by her aunt.

Luahine began her training at the age of three with Keahi, her great aunt, who was considered to be one of the greatest hula teachers of her time and one of the last royal dancers of the court of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani. Luahine briefly attended the Kamehameha Schools, but after realizing that hula was forbidden at the institution she was moved and attended St. Andrew’s Priory at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. She continued her studies at the University of Hawaii under the tutelage of Mary Kawena Pukui, who emphasized the study of traditional hula versus the popularized version of the dance.

In 1946, Luahine opened her first studio, where she stressed hula as a praise of gods and rulers.  She taught students including George Na’ope, Luana Haraguchi, and Hoakalei Kamau’u. She toured the United States and the world, displaying the beauty and power of ancient hula. Her performances were seen on television, at Hawaii’s Merrie Monarch Festival, and at the American Dance Festival.  People described how when she danced she appeared to be in “a trance” (Tregaskishonolulu, 1987).  

For most of her adult life Luahine served as the curator for the Hulihe'e Palace in Kailua-Kona.  She is the recipient of Hawaii’s first State Order of Distinction for Cultural Leadership and was declared a Living Treasure in 1972.

Luahine is considered to be one of the foremost kumu hula of the kahiko style.  The significance of Luahine is much broader than the aesthetic perfection of hula dancing.  She served as a connection between present-day generations of Hawaiians and their ancestors. The impact of Luahine in her home islands is that “she helped keep Hawaiian culture alive through the latter days of its suppression” (Tsai, 2006). She inspired an entire generation of Hawaiians to be proud of indigenous traditions; she was a center piece of the Hawaiian Renaissance; and she is seen as the guardian of the traditional hula. The understanding of Luahine importance is embedded in what hula means to the Hawaiian people.


Hula serves “as a cultural system that nurtures and sustains Native Hawaiian people, reminding them of their collective history and their identity as Hawaii’s indigenous inhabitants” (Shaka). Traditionally, it served as both worship and entertainment and was practiced by both males and females.  Like most indigenous cultural traditions, hula has had a turbulent history with western ideologies and Christianity. Upon the arrival of the first western people in 1770, Hawaii began to experience deep social and political change. This change escalated in 1810, with arrival of missionaries who pushed to establish a new value system that included writing, the Protestant work ethic, and puritan morals.  Hula went from being a dance done for worship and entertainment to a dance whose movements were seen as obscene and savage. Luahine explains that “it was the swaying of hips” which made hula seem obscene (Kisselgoff, 1975, July 14). Missionaries continuously attempted to ban hula, but were never completely successful.  Hula remained ingrained in Hawaiian culture in the underground and remote areas.2

By the early 1900s, Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani had been forced from her leadership and Hawaii was annexed to the United States. This began the emergence of new type of hula, now regarded as modern hula or ‘auana. ‘Auana hula is considered to be the artistic interpretation of the hula. Performed with vivid costumes and western instruments such as the guitar and ukelele, ‘auana hula was developed by the burgeoning tourist agencies and by Hollywood as a means of promoting and romanticizing Hawaiian culture. During this period the “hula girl” imagery arose and the hula began to be defined as a feminine activity. ‘Auana hula began to be popularized among tourists, hotels, and resorts, while hula shows began to proliferate on the islands and tour the world promoting Hawaii as a tourist attraction.

Parallel to this history, however, are the actions of a persistent community that fought to ensure the continuity of kahiko hula, or ancient hula. Two of the most revered members of this community were Keahi Luahine and her student Professor Mary Kawena Pukui. With its traditional instrumentation and chants, kahiko hula is considered is to be the closest form to the hula of ancient times. One of the most unique aspects of the kahiko hula is that the dance requires music and chants. The movements are not independent from the music, they exist because of it. It is an oral tradition, one that is passed down from generation to generation, from teacher to practitioner. In kahiko hula the movement, as well as the music and chants that accompany it, represent stories about the Hawaiian people, their history, and culture.  Hula is the ethos of Hawaii.

Luahine’s training of dancers was done with the specific intent of ensuring the survival of the ancient hula. Luahine with her dancing, but most importantly with her teaching of kahiko hula embodies the history of the Hawaiian Islands.  Luahine died on December 10, 1978 in her home island of Kona. In 2003, the 'Iolani Luahine Hula Festival was established with the mission of ensuring the preservation of Luahine’s legacy.


1 This interpretation of the name can be found in the article: Iolani Luahine, at 63; “Called Last Exponent of Sacred Hula Dance” by Anna Kisselgoff. 

2 To read a detailed account of the history of the hula see Angeline Shaka’s essay on the Hula. 

Irlanda Jacinto holds bachelor degrees in History and Anthropology from the University of Texas at El Paso, and a MA from The University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science. As an undergraduate she took ballet and became enamored with dance. She is a Knowledge River Scholar, an ARL CEP Fellow, and a 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition Archival Fellow. She has worked at the University of Arizona Special Collections, Center for Creative Photography, and the El Paso Museum of Art. As a Dance Heritage Coalition Fellow she worked at UCLA Special Collections and with Lula Washington Dance Theatre. She has a deep interest in photography, moving images, and the preservation of ephemeral arts.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Buck, Elizabeth. Paradise Remade: the Politics of Culture and History in Hawai’i. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1993.

“ ‘Iolani Luahine.” He Lei Hiwa No ‘Iolani Luahine 2013 Hula festival & Educational Challenge.


Kisselgoff, Anna. “Called Last Exponent of Sacred Hula Dance.” New York Times 1978 Dec 14: B23. Print.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Authentic Hula Dancer at Connecticut Festival.”  New York Times 1975 Jul 14: 21. Print.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “The Appetizing Smorgasbord in New London.”  New York Times 1975 Aug 31: 98. Print.

Haar, Francis and Cobey Black. ‘Iolani Luahine. Honolulu: Topgallant Pub. Co., 1985. Print.

Shaka, Angeline. Hula. Dance Heritage Coalition Americas 100 Dance Treasures. Web. 2013 Sept 14.

Tanner, Tango. “Hula on an Island but Hawaii It’s Not.” New York Times 2004 Oct 31: AR34. Print.

Tsai, Micheal. “ ‘Iolani Luahine.” The Honolulu Advertiser 2006, Jul 2. Web. 15 Sept. 2009.

Tregaskishonolulu, Moana. “In Quest of Hawaii’s Authentic Hula: In Quest of Authentic Hula.” New York Times 1987 Jul 5: H10. Print.

Von-Garske, Elisabeth. Iolani Luahine, last handmaid to the gods : an annotated bibliography of newspaper and periodical articles and other sources, 1940-1980. University of Hawaii, 1988. Print.

Online Resources

Website of the 'Iolani Luahine Hula Festival: http://www.iolaniluahinefestival.org/

Biography of 'Iolani Luahine in the Hawaiian Music Collection at the University of Hawaii: http://digicoll.manoa.hawaii.edu/music/Pages/syllabus.php?route=courses.php&course=37

Moving Image

Keepers of the Flame. Dir. Eddie Kamae. Perf. Mary Kawena Pukui, Aunty Edith Kanakaʻole, and ʻIolani Luahine. The Hawaiian Legacy Foundation, 2005. Film.