Hula is a kind of dance that began on the Hawaiian Islands. The developers of the dance were the Polynesians and they were inhabitants there. Hula dance is performed along with a chant or song which is known as mele. The hula is responsible for dramatizing or commenting on the mele.
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There are several types of hula and they are all generally categorised into two groups: kahiko and ‘auana. Kahiko was the ancient kind of hula that was performed before the Western came upon the Hawaiians. Kahiko is performed together with a chant and the people use conventional instruments. On the other hand, ‘auana was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and it was due to the impact that the West had on it. This form of hula is performed along with song and the more modern instruments of the Western side, like guitar, the ‘ukulele, and the double bass.
Hula is being taught today and the schools that teach the dance are known as halau. The person who teaches hula is called Kumu hula; Kumu refers to the supplier of knowledge (Bucuvalas & Congdon, 160). Hula dancing can be referred to as a complicated type of art, and it involves several hand movements that are required for signifying features of nature; for example, the essential Hula and Coconut Tree motions, or the primitive leg steps like Kaholo, Ka’o, and Ami.
The earliest Hawaiians did not have any kind of written language; therefore instead of writing they conveyed their tales, heritage, myths, history and prayers by means of musical chants and stylish movements that comprise the hula dance. The chant relates the tales and the hula is responsible for setting the table in action. An old Hawaiin King, Kalakaua said,
“Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people” (Pryor, 133).
Traditions of hula reveal that there are several kinds of hula dance but normally the art is referred to in two categories: the earlier form and the modern one. The ancient hula is called kahiko while the modern is the auana.
The original hula dance, that is before the Western influence changed it, was performed solely for social pleasure although the chants accompanying it also maintained the epic stories, myths, history and philosophy. The whole program of hula was taken seriously: the dancers had to train and perform and they were even compensated for it by the ruling ali’i.
There are several tales regarding the mythic initiations of hula but the most famous and common happens to be that of Pele and Hi’iaka. According to this legend, hula first began because Pele requested her sister to dance and sing for her. However, all of them except Hi’iaka excused themselves saying that they do not know about it. Hi’iaka, the youngest of them and also the most favoured, complied and performed the dance (Emerson, 3). She had been practicing with one of her friends, Hopoe, who was beautiful but unlucky, and she performed the steps that she had learned with her. Her sisters however, were not in the knowledge of Hi’iaka practicing with Hopoe.
Another version of the birth of hula is attributed to Laka. Actually, there were two deities, a male and a female and both were called Laka. They had come from Kahiki using a canoe and performed for the Hawaiians. Later, the male Laka disappeared and the dance job was left to the female Laka alone (Kanahele, 129). Another slightly modified story also exists that states that Hi’iaka actually learned hula from Laka, and then trained Hopoe with it.
Yet another variation involves the chief Mo’ikeha. This person immigrated to Hawai’i from Tahiti and then asked for La’a who got the pahu, a drum. He trained the Hawaiians with hula. A Moloka’i variation states that there was a dancer by the name of La’ila’i who originated from the Marquesas Islands. Later, he went to Hawai’i Nei (Kanahele, 129). It is said that for three hundred years hula remained in his family. After that Laka learned about it and then trained others. Lastly, it is stated that ku’ialua possibly was the “mother of the hula”. This was the earliest Hawaiian fashion of martial arts.
American Protestant missionaries landed in Hawai’i in 1820 and condemned the hula as being a vile practice. Ali’i, which means royalty and nobility, was lately Christianized and they were told to prohibit the hula dance and they did it. Nevertheless, several still carried on with the practice and supported it.
However, there was rebirth of hula during the time of King David Kalakaua. He did not wish for the disappearance of the tradition of hula for the same reason that the missionaries could not comprehend the idea of it. Therefore, he decided to do something about it. He came up with a group of hula dancers and supported them. The Princess Keelilolani dedicated herself to the traditions and became the supporter of the earlier chants. She emphasized that it is very important to restore the declining traditions of their antecedents and not let it disappear due to the Western influence that continuously attempted at modernising Hawaii. Thus, hula survived and even today it is a very significant art in Hawai’i; so much so that there are plenty of hula schools too.
Practitioners brought together Hawaiian poetry, songs, dance motions and dresses and created another kind, the hula kuʻi. the meaning of Kuʻi is “bringing together old and new”. It is revealed that the practitioners did not use pahu for this kind of dance due to the fact that they considered it sacred and it was shown respect by them. Instead, they made use of ipu gourd.
Every side of hula education and rehearsal was surrounded by rite and prayer, even till the beginning of the 20th century. Both the teachers and the learners devoted themselves to the deity, Laka.
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At the beginning of the 20th century, prayers, rite and practice were as yet a significant component of the Hula dance.
Hula was then depicted in a much altered style when Hollywood took it over. Till the middle of the 20th century hula was further commercialized and the use of modern instruments was made, like the guitar and ukulele. Through the 1970s resurgence was undertaken and the conventional ways of hula dancing were restored. Now two kinds of hula exist today: the kahiko and auana.
Through the 1960s, there was a grouping of Hilo trade people who resolved on livening up Hawaii’s sluggish tourist period which took place during the months March and April. These people decided on organizing a local event which would include hula dancing contest. This event is observed till this day in Hilo. It is called the Merrie Monarch Festival. The event is in the tribute of King David Kalakaua and it consists of Hawaiin customs along with displays and carnivals. Another event that takes place is the Ka Hula Piko, happening on the island of Molokai. It is celebrated for a day and is in the remembrance of hula dancing.
Although hula dancing has been modified and modernized, it is as yet a wonderful act to observe as well as perform. Its earlier origins are visible in the motions which represent the environment along with its differences ranging from the calm swinging of the palms to the passionate more of violent dances.
Although there are so many versions of the origin of the hula dance, each one of them can be traced to mo’olelo or myth. There are disagreements over the origin of hula but it is universally agreed upon that it originated out of mythology. That is to say that hula was started by the gods; they were the ones who did the composition, teaching it to the humans and starting the first halau; they were the ones to first make and play the musical instruments to go along with the dance. However, it cannot be said that every hula dance was created by the gods but that they were responsible for only establishing the models. There were around three hundred dances, possibly even more than that, that were performed in the old Hawaii. It can be stated that hula is a mythic rite and a renovation of the gods’ creation at the commencement.
Emerson, Nathaniel, B. Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula. US: Forgotten Books, 2008.
Bucuvalas, Tina & Krinstin G. Congdon. Just Above the Water: Florida Folk Art. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
Kanahele, George Hu’ Eu, S. Ku Kanaka Stand Tall: A Search for Hawaiian Values (Kolowalu Books). Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
Pryor, Alton. Little Known Tales in Hawaii History. Roseville, CA: Stagecoach Publishing, 2004.