The History of the Hula in Hawaii

Hula dancing is a traditional art of movement with smooth body gestures as well as vocals. The movements are extremely fluid and are said to tell a story with its chants preserving epic tales, myths, history and philosophy. Movements often represent nature, such as fish swimming through the ocean or trees blowing in the wind.

Before westerners arrived, hula was danced to tell stories as well as for social enjoyment.  The dancers’ rigorous training was taken quite seriously and was paid for and supported by the ruling class. It has been a part of Hawaiian culture since ancient times, with some believing it began even before there were people living in the islands who are now called Hawaiian – the multiplicity of traditions of its origins may confirm this.

The Hawaiian Goddess Lake is prominently associated with hula and symbolized in hula school, or halau, as a block of lama wood placed on an altar and swathed in yellow kappa. She separated her dancers into two groups, including the Olapa, or Agile ones, representing the younger generation of dancers with more energy, and Ho’o-paa, or Steadfast ones, representing the elders who sang and played musical instruments.

The beginnings of hula

There are many tales that tell the mythic beginnings of hula, with one of the most common featuring Pele and her sister, Hi`iaka. In this story, the dance is born when Pele begs her sisters to dance and sing for her with only Hi`iaka stepping up to perform, dancing using movements that she had practiced with her friend Hopoe. Of course, this is just one of many tales representing the ancient people’s attempts to answer where hula came from with efforts to decide which is correct considered a waste of effort – to some degree all may be the right answer.

Hula dances originate from a series of just six traditional moves with a wide range of interpretations and different ways of using those basic movements to create unique and beautiful performances.

After Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, several of his crew wrote about the hula performances they had seen. The expedition artist drew a male dancer wearing possibly a kupe’e made from dogs’ teeth that used a single uli uli. The english translation of kupe’e and uli uli needs to be added in parenthesis after each word.) The accounts are said to be the first and only records of hula that were made by outsiders during their first contact with Hawaiians.

In Captain Cook’s journal he wrote, “Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful.”

Missionaries attempt to eradicate hula

Unfortunately, not all foreigners appreciated the dance like Cook. When Protestant missionaries and English settlers arrived in 1820, they believed it dangerously promoted old heathen beliefs and celebrated physical enjoyment.

Hiram Bingham, the leader of the first group of missionaries to introduce Christianity to the islands wrote, “The whole arrangement and process of their old hulas were designed to promote lasciviousness, and of course the practice of them could not flourish in modest communities. They had been interwoven too with their superstitions, and made subservient to the honor of their gods, and their rulers, either living or departed or deified.

The missionaries did the best they could to eradicate hula and were even supported by some of the most powerful rulers who had converted to their religion. Traditionally, men and women wore knee level skirts made of palm leaves as well as flower leis around their arms, lower legs and heads. Prior to 1820, women wore skirts that were much shorter and men simply wore loin cloth. .  With the arrival of the missionaries, they were forced to wear a less revealing wardrobe.

Ka`ahumanu, who was the wife of Kamehameha I and regent after he died, was accepted to the church; in 1830, she forbade public hula performances. After her death in 1832, some chiefs ignored the ban but the hula continued to be hidden for many years to come. Public hula performances became regulated in 1851 with a licensing system that required a steep fee for each performance.

Evolution of hula

Through the 19th and 20th centuries under Western influence, hula evolved quite dramatically. In the early 20th century it began to be featured as a tourist spectacle such as in the Kodak Hula Show as well as being seen in Hollywood films. A more traditional hula was still maintained in small circles.

A revived interest in the dance took place in the 1970s, with two main types of Hula performed today, the hula kahiko, or ancient hula, and the hula auana, or modern hula. It still remains an incredibly beautiful dance to watch and perform, with its ancient roots seen in the movements symbolizing nature and all of its contrasts.

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