A hula dance is a choreographed interpretation of a poetic text. At the heart of a hula performance is the poetic text called mele; without a poetic text, there is no basis for the choreographed movement interpretation. Body movements combine pictorial hand and arm gestures with rhythmic lower-body patterns that are named.
The hula tradition is far more than just the dance. In fact, dances are the visual end products of a comprehensive cultural system presided over by hula’s patron goddess, Laka. Religious rituals dedicated to Laka surround the training of dancers. The life of a hula dancer is permeated with prayers, offerings, and protocol. The plants used on the hula altar are also the basis for the lei adornments worn by dancers in performance.
The dedication of much traditional hula repertoire to gods and ruling chiefs — who, in traditional Hawaiian society, were regarded as descendants of the gods on earth — has cloaked much of the hula tradition with an aura of sacredness. Yet from its beginnings in mythic antiquity, the hula has always also been a form of entertainment. One of the earliest recorded accounts of hula is in the epic myth of the volcano goddess Pele. In it, her younger sister Hi’iaka learns a dance from her friend, and performs it to Pele’s delight. (The Kanaka’ole family of Hilo, Hawai’i, is the guardian of traditional repertoire related to Pele; their theatrical presentation of this repertoire was broadcast nationally on PBS’ Dance in America series in October 2001.
After American Protestant missionaries converted Hawaiians to Christianity in the 1820s, the rituals of hula were maintained only in secret and by very few performers. The hula itself survived because its adherents maintained it underground, out of the sphere of missionary censure and suppression. In the 1870s, King David Kalakaua encouraged a revival of hula, and public performances flourished throughout the 1880s and 1890s.
By the early 1900s, the transformation of hula into general entertainment coincided with the rise of tourism. A new form of song that incorporated stringed instrument accompaniment and tuneful melodies, and subsequently the adoption of English-language lyrics, eclipsed in popularity the older chanted tunes accompanied solely by indigenous percussive instruments. This newer, westernized style of hula circulated widely, and eventually was subjected to distorted stereotypes in media and Hollywood movies that continue even today.
A roots-inspired revival of hula in the 1970s has brought about a coexistence of the older indigenous style of hula, now called hula kahiko, alongside the widely-recognized westernized style of hula now called hula ‘auana. The basic features defining these two contrasting categories are listed below:
|Hula Kahiko||Hula ‘Auana|
|indigenous performance style||westernized performance style|
|tunes are chanted||tunes are sung|
|tunes are often not very melodious||tunes are melodious|
|multiple voices chant in unison||multiple voices harmonize|
|accompaniment is by indigenous percussive instruments||accompaniment is by string instruments such as guitar, ‘ukulele, piano, bass, etc|
|movement style of dance is vigorous||movement style is softer, fluid, languid|
|costuming is indigenous; may also imitate late 19th-century photographs that show traditional skirts over western attire||costuming is often western apparel|
Watch: Mark Ho’omalu’s Na Mele Hula ‘Ohana performs “Wai’oli”
Watch: Sissy Kaio’s Hula Halau ‘O Lilinoe performs “Ala Pikake”
Hula troupes are groups that represent privately run schools called halau. The director is a master instructor called a kumu hula who is responsible for all aspects of training, costuming, and presenting dancers onstage. Many kumu hula conduct extensive research on the background of poetic texts, and aspire to cultivate awareness among their students of the rich legacy of Hawaiian history passed to the present in poetic mele, and kept alive in the performance of hula.
Dr. Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman is Associate Professor of Music and American Culture and Director of Asian/Pacific-American Studies at the University of Michigan.