Hula: The Soul of Hawaii
When we think of Hawaii, two things often come to mind: the Aloha Spirit and the Hula. Both were born in a time long past when in legend Gods, Goddesses and humans walked the earth.
The origins of hula are open to interpretation. 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.
The question of whether the original hula dancers were only men, as some Hawaiians claim today, is open to debate. There are, however, many records and legends which tell of both men and women performing the hula. What is known for certain is that women were doing the dance when Captain Cook and his crew first arrived in the islands in 1778.
The use of the word hula to describe dance is specific to the Hawaiians, and not other Polynesian cultures. The Samoans dance the sasa, fa'ataupati, or lapalapa, with their main word for dance being siva. The Maoris chant and dance the haka or waiatuhaka. 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. Interestingly, Hawaiians have an older word for dance, ha'a, which is very similar to the Maori haka and the Samoan fa'a. At least one source, the Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert, says that the word hula was not in general use until after the mid-1800s.
Whilst Elvis Presley movies may have brought hula to a greater public awareness, the dances seen in these types of movies, although entertaining, have little resemblance to the depth of spirit, grace, elegance, or sacredness that personifies this ancient art.
The hula kahiko, or ancient form of the dance, was and still is performed in traditional costume, accompanied by chanting and traditional percussion instruments, whilst the hula 'auana, or modern version of the dance, is more likely to be accompanied by modern instruments such as the ukelele and guitar. The costumes also are more modern, ranging from simple skirts and tops to elaborate Victorian outfits and, for the hotel circuit, plastic "grass" skirts and coconut bras. The hula has 3 purposes: to entertain, to inspire and to instruct. It is a cultural vehicle for social and historical commentary and passing of information. The dances and chants contain a magic that transcends their external power and beauty, filling both dancer and audience with Aloha.
The earliest forms of Hawaiian dances, the mele hula, were used either in their temple foms (ha'a) or their public forms (hula). Ha'a were usually performed as part of worship in the heiau (temple), under the direction of a kahuna (priest). These dances were often done in conjunction with rituals and ceremonies related to the specific temple and also to specific deities within those temples. Some of these were like a form of worship, paying homage to the gods with tales of their exploits. Other hula honoured the ali'I - the chiefs and royalty - whose genealogies often linked them to the gods. It was also danced for pleasure, with themes filled with deeply felt emotions. There was mana or life force and spiritual energy in the words, in the precision of the performance, in the discipline and harmony of the dancers' movements, and in their spiritual composure, a sacred continuum that linked gods with man and nature.
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.
Kuhi no ka lima, hele no ka maka - Where the hands move, there let the eyes follow.
Regardless of the subject, the hula was danced with spirituality, an ever-present part of the experience for both dances and audience. In both the hula and the chants are recorded the cultural history of the Hawaiian people, with legends, traditions, genealogies and history being preserved and passed down. The chants or mele for the hula are the integral narrative, filled with deeply felt emotion. Being without a written language, the dancers had to memorize the chants being performed.
Musical accompaniment is an essential element of the hula. In the older form, some instruments are played by the chanters, with sharkskin drums, pahu, and gourd drums, ipu or ipu heke, being the chief accompaniment. Others, such as the 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 chanter's voice also plays a crucial role in setting the tone and emotion of the dance.
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 anklets often made of dog teeth, shells, seeds, or whale bones.
Laka, goddess of love, the forests, and plants is widely acknowledged as the patron of the hula. The forest plants that served as offerings to Laka, which are an important part of the sacred hula ritual and preparation, were considered a form of the goddess herself, and therefore possessing her mana or spiritual energy. The ti or ki plant in particular is considered sacred to Laka and is used in many rituals and ceremonies for protection, to ward off evil spirits, and to bring good luck. It is an emblem of divine power.
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, the dancing school or building, symbolic of the life-giving force of the sunrise. Dancers bathed frequently and offerings to Laka were ritually cleansed and sprinkled with salt water.
All skilled hula dancers exhibit good posture, which adds to the sacredness and dignity of the dance and sets the hula apart from other forms of Poylnesian dance. The dancers posssess a feeling of harmony, balance and control. When choosing haumana, students, many qualities were looked for, such as dedication, grace, posture and respect. To be chosen as a student of hula was a great honour. Both the kumu, teacher, and the best dancers were highly respected and would often make a life long commitment to the dance.
Training in a hula school was strict, with adherence to kapu, rules, being stringent. The kapu varied through the different schools, however certain codes of conduct such as personal cleanliness, not cutting hair or nails, abstinence from sexual activity, and restrictions of certain foods were usual.
The students danced on a platform with an altar dedicated to Laka, decorated with vines and flowers in her honour. The graduation was a special ceremony performed with a strict protocol. The students stayed in the halau for several days rehearsing, making leis, offering prayers and undergoing purification rituals. The graduation was then followed by a feast and a ritual dismantling and sacred disposal of the altar.
Formality of ceremony, ritual, etiquette and protocol are very important to the hula halau. From the choosing of the materials for and the making of the leis that adorn head, wrists, ankles and neck, to the prayers performed before performances, to the dressing for a performance and the disposal of the leis afterward, often in the ocean, everything was done with ritual and respect.
As Christianity began to dominate Hawaiian culture, all forms of the hula began to disappear. 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.
Before the missionaries even arrived in Hawaii, however, the Hawaiian religious system was destroyed by internal forces. In 1819 King Liholiho Kamehameha gave the order to close the temples and cast out the priests, which dealt a severe blow to the sacred hula. The coming of the missionaries, who viewed any hula as "lewd" and "lascivious" and subversive to their endeavours to rid the Hawaiians of their "heathen" past, gradually put an end to the public performance of the other hula forms until the time of King Kalakaua. It was only due to the many hula masters who preserved the hula tradition in patient silence that this cultural heritage still exists. Today hula troupes and schools are thriving in Hawaii and are proliferating both in Hawaii and around the world.
Hula provided, as it continues to provide today, a source of pleasure and, more importantly, a means of educating both Hawaiians and non-islanders in the mythic ideology and the ideals that gave meaning and continuity to ancient Hawaiian culture. Hula is no longer danced only by native Hawaiians. There are many non-native people who resonate with and wish to perpetuate this beautiful dance and its sacred teachings worldwide. Whilst we may not be "island born" in this lifetime, there is a deep cellular remembrance and great respect by many who hear the chants and dance the movements.
Today there are many hula masters reproducing the old dances as authentically as possible and also creating dances and chants based on the traditional forms. The generations of today are lucky and privileged that this sacred dance has survived, to continue to pass on a powerful legacy. I for one am very grateful for the existence and perpetuation of this sacred teaching.
The most famous site associated with ancient hula training is at Ke'e, Kaua'i. It has the most extensive recorded history and legends associated with it. A visit to this site is an experience not quickly forgotten by any modern student of hula. The energy of this sacred place is something I could not even attempt to put in to words, so profound and tangible is the energy there. Suffice to say on each of my sojourns there, I have been left in tears, unable to speak, and barely able to breathe.
Hula is the soul of Hawaii. Perhaps the next time you see this sacred dance being performed, whether it be in its ancient or more modern form, you will view it through different eyes and with a greater awareness and sense of its deep spiritual energy.
[Top of page]
Copyright 2004 Aloha International