Hula dancing and Hawaii have become synonymous. We envision beautiful dancers in lovely hula dresses gently swaying to music depicting island themes. In fact, hula has its roots in distant times before European colonial powers discovered the Hawaiian islands. Contemporary hula dancing is accompanied by instruments that originated in Europe such as the guitar, ukulele, bass and steel guitar. However the dancing style developed by the Polynesians who originally discovered and settled in Hawaii was more severe and less graceful. The dances were accompanied by chants and native instruments that were mainly percussive. These instruments include gourd drums, fish skin covered drums, split bamboo sticks and gourd rattles.
The ancient style of hula dancing now referred to as the Hula Kahiko was danced for the religious purpose of praising Hawaiian deities and to honor the nobility. The costumes worn were usually made from native leaves and grasses such as palm leaves or ti leaves.
Hawaiian mythology relates that hula dancing was first performed for Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, by her sister Hi’iaka. The guardianship of the hula was entrusted to the goddess Laka.
In the early 1800’s Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii. Among the many Hawaiians who converted to Christianity was Queen Ka’ahumanu. The queen ordered the Heiaus or temples, where Hawaiian gods were worshiped, to be torn down. Hula dancing was prohibited as contrary to Christian morality. The missionaries regarded hula as a sinful and vulgar display of the human body. For a time hula was taught and danced only secretly. When the missionaries realized that the dance could not be completely suppressed, they insisted that the dancers wear modest costumes that covered their bodies.
King David Kalakaua, whose reign began in 1874, wanted to restore traditional Hawaiian culture. He encouraged the dancing of hula. During his reign, many new songs, expressive movements, and costumes were added to the hula repertoire. He attended many festivals. Often hula dances were performed in his honor.
Hula dancing, as most contemporary viewers know it, appears to be smooth, fluid and very graceful. Modern hula dancing is referred to as Hula Auana. Auana means to drift or wander and is pronounced ah-wahna. The movements of the hula dancer’s body, arms and hands tell a story and depict such visual images as the swaying of palm trees, the motion of waves breaking on the beach, and of rain falling from the heavens.
Hula dancing is taught throughout the islands and in many places around the world. The schools in which hula is taught are called halaus. Each school is led by a teacher who is called the Kumu Hula. The whole process of learning hula is rich in tradition and ceremony. Most halaus have an entrance chant which students chant in order to gain permission to enter. When the Kumu Hula responds with his/her chant, the students may enter and begin their instruction.
Hula in Hawaii today is strong and vibrant. It is perpetuated by the many halaus throughout the islands and is taught to young and old. Each year The Merrie Monarch festival named for King Kalakaua, who was referred to as the merrie monarch, allows the halaus of Hawaii to compete in both the ancient style and the modern style. It is a great honor to be declared the best. Visitors to Hawaii can learn the basics of hula by signing up for group or individual lessons.
The lovely hula dancer, Nalani, who performed at the most prestigious hotels in Waikiki and throughout the island of Oahu, now devotes her time and energy to teaching visitors to the islands the art of hula. Her website is nalanipro.com. You can e-mail Nalani at firstname.lastname@example.org