When someone asks us how to describe Hawai’i, we most likely create a mental picture of local dancers with skirts made of grass, embellished with exotic flowers, dancing the Hula. If this is your first thought you’re not entirely wrong, but there’s so much more to the culture expressed through hula. Many dances and other performative arts were created to tell the stories of cultures and Hula is no different from the rest.
Hula is not merely a dance style native to Hawai’i, but a language and a method of storytelling. Performed for centuries as a way to pass down ancestral stories, it was perfected and performed to hold broader meaning. Not only is it used to tell the stories of the land it originated in, but it is also at the center of many Hawaiian stories and traditions. In 1830, Westerners attempted to erase it, prohibiting it from being performed, but the will of the Hawaiian people persisted, and the Hula dance is now freely performed in the Hawaiian islands with great pride.
If you are now realizing that you merely scratched the surface of Hula, and are eager to know more about Hawaiian traditions and cultural stories, please continue reading. Here you will learn what Hula is, how far back its history goes, and what it meant for the people who first danced it (and for the people who keep it alive today).
What is Hula?
The Hula is generally characterized as a dance accompanied by a song called “mele” or a chant called “oli” and it tells the stories and traditions of the Hawaiian culture. The dance has since developed its ramifications and was divided into ancient and westernized Hula. The first (Kahiko) is played using traditional instruments, while the latter (Auana) can be played with the ukulele, the guitar, and the double bass.
This dance can be performed standing and/or sitting. The different movements of the dance convey different meanings. The classic wavy hand movements and fluid body gestures can mimic the movements of the waves, and the trees moving to the wind but they can also portray human emotions. Nowadays, the Hula dance is performed at luaus, surfing competitions, conferences, hotels, and festivals.
Both men and women can do this dance. One of the things that most characterizes this dance is the costumes worn by the female dancers. They include items like grass skirts, flowered shirts, wrist, and ankle bracelets, and of course, leis. When it comes to male dancers, they can wear a “malo”, which is a loincloth or trousers, and pair it with a shirt, or simply dance shirtless. Initially, women could also dance topless, but due to Western influence, they stopped this tradition. Although, all dancers continue to perform barefoot.
Before westernization, Hula was a big part of spiritual practices. It was performed before and after prayers, for blessings, and other rituals. There were chants to Laka near an altar that was normally built on the eastern wall of the halau. If you don’t know what “Halau” means, it was the name of the dancing school of Hula, and later became a symbol of the life-giving force of the sunrise. There, dancers would bathe and be sprinkled with salt water and make offerings to Laka.
The History of Hula
Although the Hula is a dance from Hawaii it was the Polynesians who brought it there once they settled in. It is believed that it was created to be performed for the goddess Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, fire, wind, and lightning, as well as being the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. Besides having a spiritual purpose, this dance was also performed for entertainment purposes, in other words, to please those who were in charge.
Regarding the more spiritual side of Hula, several stories depict its origin. There’s a story about the goddess Pele and her sister Hi’iaka when Pele asked her sisters to dance and sing for her, but Hi’iaka was the only one to reply to her sister's wish. That’s when she danced using movements that are now part of the Hula dance.
Once the Westerners came to Hawaii, they saw this dance as a heretic, so much so, that it didn’t take long for the Hawaiian queen at the time, Queen Ka’ahumanu, to give in to the pressure made by American missionaries and prohibit the performance of Hula at public places. However, it didn’t take long for the Hula to be permitted again. It only took sixty years, when the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Princess Lili’uokalani, revived the cultural dances.
What does it mean for the Hawaiian people?
The meaning of Hula for the Hawaiian people has changed greatly throughout the decades. Nowadays, Hula can mean different things to different people, but the shared belief is that Hula is the essence of life itself. It establishes a link between people and the universe so they can all coexist as one as manifestations of creation.
The purpose of Hula is not only to entertain, inspire or instruct, it’s also used to be in connection with our spiritual side both for the dancers and its audiences. Both ancient Hula and modern Hula, work as a cultural vehicle in which people can pass information in ways of social and historic commentary.
As has been explained above, every movement, expression, and gesture in the Hula has a unique meaning. It can be used to represent plants, animals, and the acts of listening, searching, and sailing, for example. The hand gestures are of specific significance. A good Hula dancer has to observe their palms at all times instead of looking at the audience. Chants are also part of Hula and they serve as a support to the storytelling. Without the chants or mele, it’s hard to see the narrative in Hula. They are characterized by being rich with emotions. In some ways, this was not forgotten as modern-day Hawaiians dance the Hula to celebrate their culture and history.
We hope you enjoyed reading about this beautiful practice. Now when you picture Hawaii, we hope it’s not described as “just Hula dancers,” but a community filled with love, pride, and compassionate storytelling.