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Hula: It’s History and Everything You Need to Know

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When we think of Hawaii, two things often come to mind: The Aloha Spirit and the Hula. In fact, most people will immediately associate Hawaii whenever they see Hula dancers or hear Hula music. Hula is important for the people of Hawaii, not just an art form. It is embedded in their history and culture.

Although it is an important piece of their identity, even the locals themselves are not exactly sure of its true origin and how it started to impact their culture. Different Hawaiian regions have been claiming that it is the birthplace of Hula, but despite this, locals believe that regardless of where was it born, it was definitely a gift from the gods. Legendary origins say that the origins surround the goddess Laka.

Hula: A Gift From The Gods

Some believe it came from the ancient civilization of Mu, some claim it was homegrown, while others trace it to Tahiti or some other foreign land. For both ancient and modern Hawaiians, the hula is the essence of life itself. It links them with the universe and makes them one with all creation. While it is open to interpretation, one of the most common stories is about the tale of Pele and her sister Hi`iaka. In this story, the first hula was born when Pele begged her sisters to dance and sing for her. Only Hi`iaka stepped forward to perform. She danced for Pele using movements she’d practiced with her good friend Hopoe. People acknowledged Laka, the goddess of love, the forests, and plants as the spiritual patrons of hula.

The Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert, says that the word hula was not in general use until after the mid-1800s. Being an archipelagic region, the use of the word hula to describe dance is specific to the different regions of the Hawaiian state and Polynesian cultures. The Samoans dance the sasa, fa’ataupati, or lapalapa, with their main word for dance being siva. For the Maoris chant and dance the haka or waiatuhaka. Meanwhile, the Tongans’ main body of dance is called faiva, with the principal dance being the lakalaka. The Tahitians have the aparima or otea. Easter Islanders have half a dozen different words for dance, some of which are borrowed from Samoa and Tahiti. For the Hawaiians, the word ha’a is very similar to the Maori haka and the Samoan fa’a that all means dance.

What’s the history behind Hula?

The hula kahiko, or ancient form of the dance, was and still is performed in traditional costume. It is accompanied by chanting and traditional percussion instruments. On the other hand, the hula ‘auana, or modern version of the dance, is  accompanied by modern instruments like ukelele and guitar. In the older times, instruments are played by the chanters, with sharkskin drums, pahu, and gourd drums, ipu or ipu heke. Others use feathered rattles, ‘uli ‘uli, bamboo rattles pu’ili, and hand-held river rocks, ‘ili ‘ili, which are clicked like castanets, were used by the dancers. The costumes of the ancient dances consisted a pa’u or skirt made of tapa, a kind of cloth made from the bark of certain trees; leis for the head, neck, and wrists made from plants and flowers; and anklets often made of teeth, shells, seeds, or whale bones. Today, the costumes are more modern. It rages from simple skirts and tops to elaborate Victorian outfits. And for the hotel circuit, plastic “grass” skirts and coconut bras are worn.

 

It isn’t just performed to entertain, to inspire, and instruct. The hula was also danced with spirituality, an ever-present part of the experience for both dances and audience. From the past up until today, the Hula is a cultural vehicle for social and historical commentary and passing of information. Every movement, expression and gesture in the hula has a specific meaning, from representing plants, animals, and the elements to listening, searching, sailing and so much more. The hand movements are of particular significance, with a good hula dancer watching their hands at all times and not the audience. Chants accompany the dance and assist in telling the story. The chants or mele for the hula are the integral narrative, filled with deeply felt emotion.

All hula in former times were preceded and followed by prayers, blessings and other ritual. Chants to Laka were performed; an altar was built on the eastern wall of the halau. Halau was the dancing school or building, symbolic of the life-giving force of the sunrise. Dancers bathed frequently and offerings to Laka ritually cleansed and sprinkled with salt water.

Hula has been defining the Hawaiian culture for thousands of years. Yet there are still pressing challenges for its locals to let it survive and stand the test of time. It was in the 1800s when Christianity began to dominate in the region and missionaries to proliferate religion and Catechism. Dancing the hula and its accompanying rituals were immoral and went against godliness. Because it was a symbol of the islands’ aboriginal culture, its gods and spiritual beliefs, and because some of the movements were naturally suggestive, the hula was not kindly looked upon by the missionaries in the 1820’s, and was banned until King David Kalakaua restored it to a position of honor and respect some 50 years later.

King Kalakaua, the reigning monarch, did not want the traditional dance to disappear. He felt that because the missionaries did not understand the spiritual meaning behind the hula. They could not make an informed decision. He refused an act banning hula dancing altogether. Thanks to him, Hula is still very much present in the Hawaiian culture today.

In 1865, styles of hula began blending not only native Hawaiian styles together, but also those of foreign countries. These foreign variations were based on influences acquired from foreign visitors. In 1885, as Japanese immigration has flourished and greatly influenced changes in the modern hula dancing. It’s during this time when they incorporated Japanese elements to both dance and music.

Today, Hawaiians celebrate their culture and history through hula. The hula performance is to entertain guests, but also introduce themselves and please their gods.

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