Hawaiian Hula Dance: History, Origins, Cultural Significance
Hula is an ancient Hawaiian dance that tells stories and connects dancers and audiences to Hawaiian ancestral knowledge. There are two overarching styles: hula kahiko and hula’ auana. Hula kahiko is a religious performance dedicated to or honoring a Hawaiian goddess or god, with traditional costuming, an austere look, and a reverence for spiritual roots. It is performed as part of or extension of a ceremony, set to an oli, and accompanied by percussion instruments. Hula’ auana is less formal and is performed without ceremony, accompanied by song and stringed instruments. It has a more modern style with less revealing costumes and melodic harmony music.
Hand motions represent words of the song/chant and aspects of nature and emotion. Different types of hula include Hula’ Auana, Hula Kahiko, Monarchy, and Ai Kahiko. Positions can be sitting (Noho Dance) or standing (Luna Dance). Related dances include Tamure, Hura, ‘Aparima, ‘Ote’a, Haka, Kapa Haka, Poi, Fa’ataupati, Tau’olunga, and Lakalaka.
The Hawaiian language contains 43 words to describe voice quality, and the technique and particularity of chanting styles are crucial to understanding their function. Female dancers traditionally wore a pau and were topless; today, they may wear more elaborate tapa skirts. Males wore the malo, a loincloth, and various accessories such as necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and lei. Lei were gathered in the forest with prayers to Laka and other gods and remained sacred after the performance.
Traditional hula instruments include pahu (drum), iliili (stones), uliuli ( feathered gourd rattles), and ipu (gourd drum). Modern hula instruments include steel guitar, bass guitar, ukulele, and other instruments used in hula are ohe hano ihu (bamboo nose flutes) and Pu’ili (bamboo split sticks). Hula music is as integral to the dance as the movement of the dancer’s body.
You can learn hula through Halau Hula (Hula School) with a Kumu Hula (Hula Teacher). Mistakes can invalidate a performance, and you must learn the proper rituals in addition to the dance.
When attending a hula performance, it is essential to maintain a respectful distance and avoid taking photos or videos. Note that performances may be private, and the performer may not intend for them to be publicly viewed. Remember that enjoying and experiencing hula is a distinct Hawaiian Pacific dance tradition, and respect and modesty are cultural values. While it is an ancient and beloved tradition in Hawaii, many natives still practice it to connect to the land and Hawaiian ancestral knowledge through dancing and chanting.
Historians believe that the hula dance originated in Hawaii around 1000 AD and developed over the centuries to become an integral part of Hawaiian culture and tradition that natives still practice today.
The birth of the hula dance as we know it today began with the arrival of American Protestant missionaries and Queen Ka’ahumanu (the wife of King Kamehameha I) in the early 1800s. The missionaries sought to suppress Hawaiian culture, including the hula dance.
Hula was later revived by King David Kalakaua and Princess Lili’uokalani in the mid to late 19th century when they encouraged the practice of hula kui or hula done with the accompaniment of an ipu heke (double gourd) and a pahu (drum) by kumu hula (hula masters). The masters were highly respected spiritual guides. Hula kui was also seen as a form of prayer and ritual and was an integral part of hula training.
The popularity of hula dancing increased during the 20th century, as several movies and popular culture presented it and spread its culture globally. While a few older practitioners have maintained hula, it wasn’t until the 1970s that there was a renewed interest in hula practice. Today, the Merrie Monarch Festival is one of the most famous hula competitions held annually in Hilo, Hawaii.
Chanting, known as “oli,” is also part of hula dancing, and it is a form of an oral tradition that expresses emotion and tells stories. There are three main types of chant: oli aloha (love chant), oli hula (hula chant), and oli pule (prayer chant). While chanting, performers also use instruments to enhance the performance, such as ipu (gourd), ili-ili (bamboo stamping tubes), ‘ohe (bamboo nose flute), and pahu (drum).
But hula is not just a dance – it is a way of life! It is a source of energy and strength that connects the land and the self. For many native Hawaiians, hula is a source of purpose and pride. It has a deep emotional connection to the people, and its loss can be a harrowing experience.
If you visit Hawaii and are interested in experiencing hula, please do so with an open and mindful attitude. Respect the hula dance and those who practice it. Hawaii will reward you with a beautiful cultural, traditional, and emotional journey. Come and experience the grace and beauty of hula dancing – you won’t regret it!