The Art of Hula

The Art of Hawaiian Hula
History & Legends Told Through Dance

There are various legends surrounding the origins of hula.


According to one Hawaiian legend, Laka, goddess of the hula, gave birth to the dance on the island of Molokaʻi, at a sacred place in Kaʻana. After Laka died, her remains were hidden beneath the hill Puʻu Nana. Another story tells of Hiʻiaka, who danced to appease her fiery sister, the volcano goddess Pele. This story locates the source of the hula on Hawaiʻi, in the Puna district at the Hāʻena shoreline. The ancient hula Ke Haʻa Ala Puna describes this event.

 

And yet, another story is when Pele, the goddess of fire was trying to find a home for herself running away from her sister Namakaokaha'i (the goddess of the oceans) when she finally found an island where she couldn't be touched by the waves. There at chain of craters on the island of Hawai'i she danced the first dance of hula signifying that she finally won.  One variant of this story, is that Pele asked Laka to amuse her because Pele was bored. So right away Laka got up and began to move gracefully, acting out silently events they both knew. Pele enjoyed this and was fascinated thus Hula was born.

 

In Ancient Times...

Ritualistic hula was performed at a chief’s birth and after his death in commemoration of his life. Some forms of hula were danced only by men, such as those for war, since women were usually forbidden to enter temples. Hula was also performed for fertility purposes and harvests as an important part of the annual Makahiki celebration. Essentially, hula was a means of recording and exhibiting the history of the Hawai’ian people and their deities. Because of its religious purpose, hula kahiko (ancient hula) was performed by dancers trained in halau (schools). The rules within these schools were strict, and meant to attract the auspices of Laka, goddess of hula.

 

But hula wasn’t always so serious. It was also a favorite pastime and means of self-expression. During feasts, people would dance hula to express joy. A sensual form of expression, hula dancing shocked the missionaries when they arrived in the islands. They immediately began trying to suppress it, and they found an ally in Ka‘ahumanu, regent and widow of King Kamehameha I, who became a Christian covert in 1825. For almost 50 years hula was banned in public, but the tradition was secretly maintained through families who recognized it as a way of life and felt a responsibility to pass it on.By 1874, when Kalakaua ascended to the throne, the regulations against hula had been relaxed, and this Merrie Monarch publicly restored the art form. Hula ‘auana (modern, drifting hula) is the dance which developed as the result of an audience who didn’t know the Hawai‘ian language. At the turn of the 20th century, hula became a language of gestures that anyone could understand. By the time Hawai‘i became a state, the catchy slack-key tunes and hip-swaying mischievous movements of hapa-hula had evolved. Both forms of hula remain today, celebrating the spirit of Hawai‘ian life.

 

Another form of celebration is the lu‘au feast. The word lu‘au actually refers to the tender green leaf of the taro plant. These leaves were used in cooking. ‘Aha‘aina was the original Hawai‘ian word for feast; it literally means “gathering of the land.” At one time, the people of Hawai‘i had to find an excuse not to hold a lu‘au. Just mentioning it would start everyone gathering the ingredients for a successful feast.

 

From the mountain, Hawai‘ians would bring a pua’a (pig) which was then baked in the ground. From the ocean, limu (seaweed) was gathered; it was believed to release someone from wrongdoing or emotional ills. And from the cultivated land would come taro root pounded into poi, and ti leaves which would cover a table (or mat) to elicit protection. But the essential ingredient for a truly successful lu‘au is sharing the spirit of Aloha. Visitors to these islands soon find that the feast, accompanied by music and dance, is one of the best ways to celebrate Hawai‘i.

Hula is taught in schools or groups called hālau.

The teacher of hula is the kumu hula, where kumu means source of knowledge, or literally just teacher.

 

Often there is a hierarchy in hula schools - starting with the kumu (teacher), alaka'i (leader), kokua (helpers), and then the 'olapa (dancers) or haumana (students). This is not true for every hālau, but it does occur often.

 

Most, if not all, hula halau(s) have a permission chant in order to enter wherever they may practice. They will collectively chant their entrance chant, then wait for the kumu to respond with the entrance chant, once he or she is finished, the students may enter.

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