Few American icons are as well known for their popular kitsch as the hula dance. From old Hollywood movies to entertainment for tourists, the hip-swaying girls in grass skirts and colorful lei have long masked an ancient cultural tradition. Now, after years of being shadowed by stereotypes, the hula is experiencing a rebirth that celebrates Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians — wherever they live — are challenging misconceptions to redefine the evocative storytelling art of the hula dance across the American mainland.
For Hawaiians, the hula is a way of life. Since ancient times, hula has preserved history through oral tradition and expressed the soul of Hawaiian spirituality. The sacred chants communicated with the gods, recorded genealogy, honored the chiefs, exalted nature and celebrated humanity. Yet by the early 20th century, many of the unique cultural traditions of Hawai’i were in danger of disappearing — especially the hula. Denounced as a “heathen” practice with the arrival of American missionaries, the hula was soon outlawed and forced underground. Hawaiians were discouraged from being proud of their ancestry and soon even the language was banned. Nearly lost after decades of assimilation following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the hula emerged as a symbol of fierce ethnic pride during the Hawaiian renaissance that swept the islands in the 1970s.
American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai’i shows the survival of the hula as a renaissance continues to grow beyond the islands. With the cost of living in Hawai’i estimated at 27 percent higher than the continental United States, large numbers of Hawaiians have left the islands to pursue professional and educational opportunities. Today, with more Native Hawaiians living on the mainland than in the state of Hawai’i, the hula has traveled with them. From the suburbs of Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, the largest Hawaiian communities have settled in California, and the hula continues to connect communities to their heritage on distant shores.
Sounding a universal note of cultural adaptation and renewal, American Aloha takes us on a tour through the practices and philosophies of some of those at the forefront of hula’s renaissance on the mainland. The film focuses on the work of three kumu hula, or master teachers of hula, in the largest Hawaiian communities in California. The three teachers, who have all resided on the mainland for over 20 years, represent very different — and sometimes controversial — approaches to preserving the integrity of ancient hula while carrying the art form into the future.
Sissy Kaio, who lives in Carson, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, has been teaching hula for over two decades. She is the most traditional of the three and is the center of a halau, or school of dance, that runs like a large family of over 100 men, women and children ranging in age from four to 75. Her students seek to rediscover their connection to their roots, their bond to the ‘aina or land of their ancestors. Struggling to perpetuate the ancient kahiko traditions in a very different modern world, Sissy says, “We make wherever we live our own Hawai’i. So, we may be in California, but we make it our Hawai’i.”
In contrast, Mark Ho’omalu, an Oakland resident, is a hula teacher who is both acclaimed and criticized for bringing innovations to hula traditions. Rebellious and confrontational, Mark’s cutting-edge chant style and unique rhythms in his music have challenged traditionalists back home in Hawai’i to question the boundaries of the time-honored dance. “Here in California, it’s not the blood quantum that will be passed on,” says Mark in the film, “but the culture that will be carried into the future.”
Patrick Makuakane, just across the bay from Mark in San Francisco, has stirred even more controversy in the Hawaiian community. In addition to teaching hula, Patrick is a DJ and has braved new waters by setting traditional hula movement to non-Hawaiian music. In shows such as “The Natives Are Restless,” he uses his progressive approach to address political issues such as the arrival of Christian missionaries and the overthrow of Hawai’i’s last sovereign ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani, by American businessmen. Blending the contemporary and the traditional, Patrick’s work shows the hula is a living and evolving art form. “I do everything with hula,” he says. “And you know, hula in Hawai’i is sort of the last bastion of tradition. You don’t touch hula.”
With the disappearance of pure Native Hawaiians predicted within a generation, today’s revival of the ancient art of hula is a creative response to the challenges of cultural survival. A powerful testament to the vibrant community of Hawaiians living far from home, “American Aloha” is a wonderfully entertaining celebration of Hawaiian culture as well as a proud tribute to those who will carry traditions into the future.