What Is Hula?
Every spring, the people of the Hawaiian Islands celebrate and honor Hawaii’s ancient dance form, hula, at the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Competition on the island of Hawai’i. The Merrie Monarch has been likened to the Superbowl of hula. Hula dancers and enthusiasts alike are glued to their televisions, and those in the know can tell you — by the movement of hand, foot, or body of the dancers — which hula lineage is being represented on stage at any given time. Just as the Superbowl has armchair coaches, the Merrie Monarch has many armchair judges, enjoying the televised competition from home, taking notes and making comments on each performance. It is one of Hawaii’s most cherished (and highly discussed!) annual events.
What exactly IS hula? Does it have any meaning?
Hula is a dance that is completely unique to Hawai’i. Although in these modern days it is often performed to entertain, in ancient times hula played a critical role: to preserve and perpetuate the stories, history, culture, and traditions of Hawai’i. A hula dancer visually conveys the meaning or story behind a particular chant or song.
Hawaiian hula consists of two types of dance. Hula kahiko is the ancient form and is done to honor a person, place, or thing. It is accompanied by a chanter who tells the story and keeps the beat with an ipu heke (double gourd drum, pictured below). Costumes are of earth tones, and adornments are made from greenery, such as ferns or other native plants. In hula kahiko, there is little room for creativity or innovation. You must perform the hula exactly as you learned it, and if you are allowed to teach it to another, you must teach it exactly as you were taught. In this way, the history and stories of Hawai’i are preserved as they were meant to be. In many hālau (hula schools), hula kahiko is taught in the old style. You are not allowed to video or record any lessons, and sometimes not even allowed to use pen and paper in class. If you think about it, this method is quite ingenious for it forces students to pay close attention in class, and it encourages close bonds between hula sisters or brothers since it causes them to gather for study groups.
Hula ‘auana is a more modern style of hula. Literally, ‘auana means “to wander.” Therefore, this style is more free flowing. Hula ‘auana is performed to songs sung in English or Hawaiian and accompanied by musical instruments like the ‘ukulele. For example, hula ‘auana would be danced to the popular modern song “Lovely Hula Hands.” Costumes and adornments add to the artistry of hula ‘auana and can also depict a particular era. Starting as early as the 1920s, costumes for hapa-haole hula (Hawaiian tunes with English lyrics) were danced in cellophane skirts glamorized for Hollywood. In later years, the holokū (a mu’umu’u with extended train) was commonly used to accentuate the elegance of the dancer. In the late 1950s, you could stroll down to Kapi’olani Park in Waikīkī and see young ladies wrapped with ti leaf skirts and tight fitting colorful tops dancing hula ‘auana with ‘ulī ‘ulī (feather gourds). Today, kumu hula (hula teachers) have a plethora of styles, fabrics, flowers and lei to add to the stylings of ‘auana hula.
Make a point of seeing a hula performance on Maui!
Hopefully, during your visit to Maui you will have the chance to see hula performed—possibly at a lūʻau. Much of what you will see at a lūʻau is quite unlike the precise and traditional hula performed at the Merrie Monarch. At a lūʻau, you might see different types of Polynesian dance. Maori dancers with beaded skirts using poi balls in a show of coordination. Muscular Sāmoan dancers keeping you on the edge of your seat with their fire knife skills. Rapid hip-shaking Tahitian dancers wearing colorful skirts and elaborate head dresses accompanied by lively percussive drumming. And you will see graceful Hawaiian hula.
Next time you are at a lū‘au challenge yourself to identify which dances are Hawaiian hula, and see if you can recognize the two different forms of hula kahiko and hula ʻauana.
Mahalo to Gayle Miyaguchi, Hawaiian Cultural Resource Advisor for the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, for providing this guest blog on Hawaiian culture. The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel has long been known as “Hawaii’s most Hawaiian hotel” and is highly respected for its commitment to providing an authentic Hawaiian cultural experience for its guests.
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Candy Aluli, Publisher
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