Hula – Heartbeat of the Hawaiian People

(Last updated on: April 6, 2018)

_DSCN1743 luau dancers adj 225x300 qual11Hula is a paradox: it’s the Hawaiian art form that is best known around the world, yet also the least understood. This blog discusses its history, its heart, and where to find and experience it.

Surprised by Hula

Visitors to Maui may encounter hula even before claiming their suitcases. If you arrive at Kahului airport before 9:00 p.m., as you approach baggage claim you may hear strumming guitar and ukulele. A man begins to sing, in lilting syllables.

As you round the corner, you see two women moving gracefully to the hula dance. Long dark hair drapes their shoulders and backs, and they wear flowered sheath dresses almost reaching the floor. Leis adorn their necks and they are bare-footed. Hips sway like palm trees in the wind, hands and arms stroke the air. All the while they are smiling at you, the lucky visitor just arrived.

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What are we to make of this hula greeting? If we aren’t exhausted from our flight, we will find it entertaining and welcoming. It’s also great public relations, merely the first of many gifts the island gives to its visitors. But it’s not just a performance: this exotic act also gives us a peek into a cultural heritage that runs surprisingly deep in the Hawaiian people.

Since this is a science blog, you may wonder: is there science here? Yes, indeed:
Nutritionists have determined that hula dancing consumes 238 calories per hour.
Cardiologists have studied hula as a basis for a healthy-heart program, and have also found evidence for hula’s support of mental and emotional health.
Cultural anthropologists use the chants of hula as a window into the history of Hawaii before the introduction of written language.

In this article, we’ll pull back the curtain for a brief glimpse at the complexities of hula, then talk about how a non-Hawaiian may experience some of its deep magic. To reduce confusion for the non-Hawaiian reader, Hawaiian terms will be used sparingly, with Hawaiian / English translations given in brackets: [ ].

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Hula Before Captain Cook

The Polynesian people were skilled navigators who settled in many Pacific islands, and are thought to have reached the Hawaiian islands around the year 500. Although Polynesians conducted trade over distances of thousands of miles, contact was still so infrequent that the Hawaiian islands evolved distinctive traditions and customs, among them the hula.

The people settling in Hawaii organized into tribes based on family and personal ties. Although tribes struggled for dominance, they also formed alliances, engaged in trade, and intermarried. Social traditions, including hula, arose from their common heritage and history.

Since Hawaii had no written language, its history was passed down by an oral tradition of chants or poems [mele]. The chants told stories of creation and of the gods, and the genealogies of Hawaii’s leaders. The rhythm of the poems was reinforced by accompaniment using a variety of percussion instruments. Among these were gourd drums [ipu], water-worn lava rocks used as castanets [ili’ili], feathered gourd rattles [uli’uli] and rhythm sticks [kala’au].

In traditional hula [hula kahiko] the poems were chanted by men, and men also played the instrumental accompaniment. Women dancers provided a visual counterpoint to the chants, with costumes and body motions directly reinforcing the words of the stories. For example, rhythmic motions of the upper body could represent rippling waves, the motion of trees in the wind, or the emotions expressed by the poem. Lower body movement could echo the cycles of the earth and the heavens, and the volcanic power ready to emerge from the earth at any moment.

Hula After Captain Cook

When Captain James Cook arrived in 1778 he found native chieftains battling each other fiercely to gain more territory. Trade with Europe soon brought cannons, muskets and ships to the inter-island conflicts. With the help of this technology, in 1810 a single leader, Kamehameha I, succeeded in asserting dominion over all of Hawaii.

The Hawaiian islands were well positioned as a way station for trans-Pacific voyages and as an operations base for whaling ships. Thus there were many incentives for Europeans to visit, settle on and exert control over the indigenous people and their customs.

Beginning in 1820, missionaries made it their business to convert the Hawaiian people to their version of Christianity. Traditional hula was danced by women wearing a wrapped skirt [pa’u] with bare upper bodies. Male dancers wore a loincloth [malo]. Churchmen just arrived from New England found the dances pagan and the attire sinful; as quickly as they were able to convert the Hawaiian monarchs to their religion, they persuaded them to outlaw hula dancing as well as other traditional customs.

Fortunately, hula was saved from extinction by Hawaiian King David Kalākaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891. Kalākaua, often called the Merrie Monarch, was an enthusiastic patron of Hawaii’s cultural history. He spent much time traveling between the islands and visiting the people, and his visits were the occasion for festivals featuring chant and hula. To appease Victorian churchmen, hula costumes were adopted that covered the bodies of the dancers.

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Hula After Hollywood

Hula entered a new phase when Hollywood discovered its exotic appeal. The 1927 movie Hula featured Clara Bow as a seductive young woman dancing the hula wearing a grass skirt. The grass skirt became standard movie hula attire, as reinforced by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii (1961). Along the way, some (presumably) male marketer added an uncomfortable and impractical accessory – the coconut bra. The coconut bra became a staple of a famous long-running tourist show, the Kodak Hula Show and has also become standard in many shows presented for tourists. Hula dancers today who seriously study the art have discarded these kitschy props and returned to more authentic costumes.

The twentieth century brought one change to hula that is so popular that it has created a new and parallel tradition, with the addition of music. The traditional chant style of hula [hula kahiko] has been joined by “modern hula” [hula ’auana]. Modern hula adds musical accompaniment by guitar, ukulele and bass, and converts chants into songs, sometimes sung in harmony.

Although practitioners of traditional hula may look askance, modern hula is so popular with tourists that it is probably the only type you will see as a visitor to Hawaii. To show how well established both hula types are today, the annual Merrie Monarch festival on the Big Island of Hawaii gives equal stage emphasis to both hula kahiko and hula ’auana. In the traditional category, prizes are awarded to recognize the top five performing all-female groups (Wahine Kahiko) and the top five all-male groups (Kane Kahiko). Similarly, modern hula performance is honored with top-five prizes to women (Wahine ’Auana) and to men (Kane ’Auana).

Hula as Holistic Practice

Although hula’s wide popularity is sustained economically by its entertainment value, its practitioners see it as a holistic lifestyle. There’s a fascinating research article that pulls together the views of six “culturally recognized hula educators and experts,” who are known as kumu hula.

The goal of the researchers was to see whether hula could be successfully used to motivate Hawaiians to improve their cardiovascular health. The teachers described hula practice as supporting overall health through the integration of these elements:
– Physical health: through vigorous dancing, especially with long periods of dancing or the addition of weights to feet and hands;
– Mental health: based on a pattern of ritual and routine that structures both rehearsal and performance, plus memory improvements from learning complicated dance sequences;
– Emotional health: an “entrance chant” to begin the hula session without bringing the emotional baggage of everyday life; and the mutual support of other group members;
– Spiritual health: the integration of physical, mental and emotional health, symbolized by the concept of dancing to akua (God, or the gods).

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Hula for the Visitor to Hawaii

If you were not fortunate enough to catch a hula performance upon your arrival, there are many other ways you can enjoy this deeply meaningful dance tradition:

– Shopping Centers. The Lahaina Cannery Mall in Lahaina, Maui has free hula performances several times a week. The keiki (childrens) shows are particularly charming. You may see some unauthentic grass costumes but hey, you get what you pay for. Other shopping centers on Maui also offer free hula shows, generally not on as frequent a schedule.

– Luaus. The Hawaiian tradition of a luau (feast) has been transformed into tourist entertainment. The Old Lahaina Luau has its own performance space, and major hotels also mount their own shows, complete with hula, Hawaiian foods and of course tropical drinks.

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When your vacation is past, you can continue to enjoy hula, either as a spectator sport or as a personal activity:

– Performance Videos: There are some wonderful videos of prize-winning hula performances, both in the traditional and the modern styles. For example, the first place Wahine ‘Auana winners at the 2009 Merrie Monarch festival were the dancers from the hula school Hula Halau ‘O Kamuela. Their performance begins at minute 2:00 of this YouTube video as they hula to the song Panini Pua Kea (White Flowered Cactus). The dance and its liquid words are made even more beautiful if you follow along with the English translation:

‘Auhea iho nei o Lei aloha
Ku’u hoa i ka nani a’o nā pua

Eia mai au ‘o suipa lilo
Ka ipo i ke aka pua aniani

He aniani wale ‘o hali’a loko
Nowelo mao ‘ole i ka pu’uwai

Nā wai nō ‘oe e a pakele aku
I ka wai o ka pānini pua kea

Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana
Ku’u ipo i ka nani a’o nā pua

Where has Leialoha gone?
My companion amid the beautiful flowers

Here am I, “Sweep-all-to-myself”
Your sweetheart in the shadow of fair flowers

Well known is my heart’s turmoil
As love stirs ceaselessly in my heart

How can you escape its influence
After tasting the honey of the white flowered cactus

This is the end of my song
Of my sweetheart among the beautiful flowers

I also recommend this youtube recording (audio only) of “Iz” (Israel Kamakawiwoʻole) singing the same song in his beautiful tenor voice.

– Do-It-Yourself Hula: Hula DVDs use the goal of physical health as the “hook” to introduce you to the total hula tradition. Two examples are Hula Workout for Beginners and Hula and Weightloss.

– Hula Schools: If you fall in love with hula you may want to consider classes at a hula school [halau hula]. The website lists hula schools in many states and countries. To enjoy the fullest experience, try to select a teacher whose students have ranked well in formal competitions, where participants not only have to dance with skill, but also explain how their choreography integrates with the images painted by the accompanying song or chant.

However you choose to experience hula, you are likely to agree with the words of King David Kalākaua:

Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian People.

Whether or not you make hula a part of your life, when you visit Hawaii please don’t miss the chance to see and hear the beauty of this traditional yet modern art form.

Image Credits: Photos by Art Chester, taken at Kahului airport and at Old Lahaina Luau

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