Leaving any of the Hawaiian Islands without having seen hula dancing is like having visited New York City and not seen a Broadway show, gone to Paris and not visited the Eiffel Tower, or walked into a library and not at least looked at one book.
Hula dancing is the oral history of the Hawaiians, telling of the life, hopes, and aspirations of the Hawaiian people. It brings to life the story of the beginning of the human world, nature and those who inhabit it, including humans, animal, plant, soil, water, air, and wind.
The hula brings to life the love one feels for another person, the adventure one had when wandering alone in the woods, the story of bringing fish to the table, growing plants, bringing up children, enjoying old age, thanking the gods, the life of a warrior, and much more.
Hawaiians feel connected to the world around them and hold deep respect for anything that this world provides for them, taking only what they need for their sustenance. They are restricted to what they could take from the land, called “kapu” in Hawaiian and expressed through the hula dance. Thus, the hula was also a tool to teach the people respect for their world, elders, family, just about anything that touched their life.
“Hula is the soul of Hawaii expressed in motion,” the author of the Alternative Hawaii Web site explained.
Ancient Legends and History of Hula
In ancient times, the hula was meant not to entertain visitors to the islands and earn a living, but to honor and thank the gods for one's life, food on the table, the blue sky, and the happiness of being alive.
Many of the Hawaiian Islands—Hawaii, Moloka'i, O'ahu, Kaua'i, Maui, Kaho'olawe, and Ni'ihau—claim to be the birthplace of the hula.
Hawaiian people tell legends about the origins of the hula and most are very similar. One such story speaks of Hi’iaka who danced for her volcano sister Pele to bring peace between them, while another speaks of Pele forcing her sister Laka, the keeper of the dance, to dance.
The story heard most often when one is in Hawaii is that Laka invented the dance on Molokai, one of the Hawaiian Islands at one of the most sacred places in Ka’ana.
Traditional and Modern Hula
The ancient hula, Kahiko, is accompanied by chanting (mele) and the traditional Hawaiian drum (pahu). The dancers wear the traditional Hula costume with a flower lei over the shoulders and a Lei po’o made of greenery on the head.
Ancient women wore the pau (skirt), fashioned from tapa (bark cloth) or palm leaves, but shorter than the modern pau; anklets (kupea) made of dogteeth or whalebone; and were topless. Men just wore a loincloth and were adorned with leis, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets.
For the modern hula, called Hula Auana, the dancers wear colorful clothes and are accompanied by song and Western type instruments, including the guitar, the ukulele, and the double brass instead of the pahu. They wear the same kind of leis as the Kahiko dancers, but the head lei is made of flowers.
The ukulele’s ancestor is a small Portuguese guitar-like instrument, which has four nylon or gut strings and comes in four different forms—soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The instrument generally is made of Hawaiian wood.
The Polynesian Cultural Center explains that Kahiko instruments are “shark-skin covered wooden drums, often made from coconut logs or breadfruit wood. It is either played with the fingertips or the palm of the hand, and gives off a deep tone.”
The hula dancers may also use the Ipus, which are hollowed-out single or double gourd drums, slapped with the hand and fingers while stamping with the feet on the ground.
The dancer also may use Uli u’lis, which are feathered gourd rattles and shaken rapidly back and forth, as well as a split bamboo stick, called puili. The sticks are either beat against each other or against the shoulders to create a rattling sound.
Hula Dancing 101
It is a myth that hula means swinging one's hips to the sound of Hawaiian music. Hula dancers will use their entire body to express the story—their posture, hands, arms, bare feet, eyes, and hips. Each movement tells a part of the story and has a special meaning.
According to “A Pocket Guide to How to Hula for Body, Mind and Spirit” (edited by Patricia Lei Anderson Murray), the basic footwork is a sliding motion instead of the lifting of the foot. The right foot steps to the right and then the left foot follows. Then, repeat the same step and stop. Then, begin again. When doing these steps, the hips sway in unison with the movement of the feet.
The lele steps are the forward movements where one steps right, left, and then forward or back. The hela step requires that one places the foot at a 45 degree angle to the front with the weight on the opposite hip, keeping knees bent. Then one goes back and repeats the same step. There are also the holoholo, uwehe, and lele uwehe steps, which are combinations of the aforementioned steps.
There are many hand and arm movements that tell the story of love, marriage, child birth, happiness, sadness, the journey to the other side of the island, and so on. When one tells the story about going to the ocean, the hands move lightly up and down, mimicking the moves of the waves. When mirroring the tide rolling in, one turns the lower arm and hands over each other. When speaking of the past, one crosses the arms with the hands slightly above the shoulder and then opens them and extends them forward.
Hawaiian Hula Language
“The first 26 dance steps (nä ke`ehi i ka ha`a) are recorded in the Hawaiian Dictionary authored by Mary Kawena Püku`i and Samuel H. Elbert,” according to the huapala Web site. However, there are many steps and movements that were not recorded in that dictionary, but published on the Internet.
For instance, ha’a is the name for hula before the mid-1800s. Ai ha’a is a hula step with bent knees; ami, the rotation of the hips; and hue, swinging the hips in tune with the drummer. Kelamoku is the step used by Hawaiian sailors.
The Old Lahaina Luau
The Old Lahaina Luau in Lahaina is the most popular Maui luau, where delicious food is provided with a breathtaking view of the ocean and a medley of Hawaiian hula dances throughout the evening.
One is greeted with a lei and a drink and then taken by one’s waiter to the table. While waiting for the food, one walks around the area and watches Hawaiian craftsmen at work and the beautiful sunset, and listens to the modern day Hawaiian music performed in an alcove.
The luau feast includes a pig roasted (Kalua Pua’a) in the Old Lahaina’s underground oven and removed for all those willing to watch, put on a stretcher, and carried to the kitchen. The fare includes Laulau, pork wrapped in taro leaves; poi, which is steamed and bashed taro, a potato-like root; steamed and roasted fish, meat and chicken; stir fried vegetables; and many other delicious dishes available at several buffets.
After dinner, the real show begins with the Ote’a, a drum dance. This dance was introduced to Hawaii by La’a Mai Kahiki, a Tahitan prince. The program is a medley of traditional and modern hula dances.
This is followed by the Kahiko, the ancient hula dance, telling the story of Pele who sends her sister Hi’aka to find her lover, Lohiau.
During many of the performances, an elderly Hawaiian, all clad in white, chants the stories in Hawaiian, including the story of Lihau, the location of the “Old Lahaina Luau,” and is accompanied by drums.
“A'ohe mea like me Maui loa, Ke kuahiwi 'oi kelakela o Lihau, Hau kokolo Hale'iwa, Kumuhonua, E ukali aku ana e pili me Keka'a. Ua ka'a ia laki ia Maui apau. Nani Lahaina i ka'u 'ike.”
(“None other can compare with the great Maui. With its excellent mountain Lihau. The dew creeps through Hale'iwa and Kumuhonua. It follows to be close to Keka'a. All the luck has rolled forth on Maui. Beautiful is Lahaina to my estimation.”)