Dancing the Hula: Reciting Ancestral Memories

Dancing the Hula: Reciting Ancestral Memories

What is hula?

Surely for most, it’s synonymous with the Hawaiian form of dance. Usually accompanied by drums, guitar, and ukulele, the hula dancer moves to a series of rhythmic chants in the Native Hawaiian language.

But what does dancing the hula really mean?

The true meaning of hula is much deeper than the superficial forms that most Hawaiian tourists have the pleasure of enjoying today. According to Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole, “Hula is the physical modality by which we consciously engage, participate and grasp what is ancestral memory.”

The movements particular to the art of hula, accompanied by oli (chant) and mele (song), are meant to transform the space around the practitioner so as to resonate with the land and recount the tales of the ancestors.

The Purpose of Hula

Due to the fact that the Hawaiian language was primarily oral before the 19th century, narrative stories were typically passed down through generations by voice alone. The traditional chants particular to the hula therefore told stories of creation, royalty, legendary figures, and various mythologies.

The recitation of traditional chants kept (and continue to keep) the history, genealogy, and culture alive for the Native Hawaiian people. The motions of the hula dramatize and portray the words of the oli in the visual form of dance.

Through the hula, a story unfolds for the dancer, and all who are within the audience. A sacred connection is established between the gods and the lands when hula is performed.

Although the dance is often performed in remembrance of some act or identity, it has always often been done for the sake of social enjoyment. Not only is hula performed today to please tourists, it was also performed for the enjoyment of Hawaiian royalty prior to the 19th century. 

Through subtle steps of the feet, flowing gestures of the hands, and slight waves of the hips, the motions of hula can signify everything from various aspects of nature, feelings and emotions, or the actions of a legend.

The Origins of Hula

There are a number of stories suggesting where the birth of hula might have began.

In one legend, Laka, the goddess of hula and forest growth gave birth to the dance on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i. 

In another legend, the origin of hula is attributed to the volcano goddess Pele on the Big Island of Hawaii.

And in yet another story, it has been suggested that the creator gods, Kane, Lono, Ku, and Kanaloa motioned with their hands and feet as they chanted sacred incantations to create earth, the first man and first woman.

The origin stories of hula seem to be as rich and diverse as Hawaiian culture itself. Each of the legends seem to indicate a particular place on one of the Hawaiian islands as being the birthplace of hula. The most likely origin is probably made most true depending on who you ask.

The History of Hula

When the first Hawaiians arrived from Polynesia around 400 CE a new formal dance began to slowly evolve out of the traditional forms located in other Polynesian islands.

The most ancient and traditional form of hula is known as Hula Kahiko. This dance form differs from the more modern and well-known form of hula because it took place before western influences. 

The mele of Hula Kahiko is customarily performed with a hallowed out drum called Pahu and made from the trunk of a coconut tree with shark skin stretched across the top. Other instruments used included river rocks (Ili’ili), dried and hollowed gourds (Ipu), bamboo flutes (‘Ohe), conch shell horns (Pu), and percussive bamboo sticks (Ka’eka’e).

When the ancient form of hula was common, a mistake during the performance was usually considered bad luck and would thus invalidate the whole performance. Those learning the sacred art, who were expected to make many mistakes, were put under the goddess of Laka and were ritually secluded from the rest of the professional performers.

When western influences began to proliferate throughout the Hawaiian islands in the 19th century, many Native Hawaiian customary practices suffered as a result. Dancing the hula was even banned in 1830, as missionaries argued that it promoted dangerous heathen beliefs.

Hula did not publicly emerge again until 1883 with the coronation of King Kalakaua, who claimed, “Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” As hula slowly came back into practice, it was largely stripped of its original meanings and instead became the focus of tourist entertainment.

The modern form of hula is known as Hula ‘Auana, which means “to drift.” It focuses more on Christian morality and melodic harmonies, usually performed with western instruments like the guitar and ukulele. The dancers are more fully clothed, and most of the oli focus on more recent events since the 1800s.

Hula as a Way of Life

According to Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole, hula give a sense of foundation to the Native Hawaiian. When the dance and the oli are performed in proper harmony, she says, “it feels like teetering on the cusp of consciousness and unconsciousness.”

To Native Hawaiians, this period is what is known as “haili moe,” the dream state.

Kanakaole goes on to suggest, “Hula facilitates the physical aspect of that moment of transcendence,” and the “Oli is vocal or harmonic alchemy.”

With all of this said, the next time you witness a hula performance, try to determine whether it is Hula Kahiko, or Hula ‘Auana. Chances are, you’ll see the more modern style being performed, but if you’re lucky, you may have the chance to witness the performance of the ancient hula.

Both styles of hula contribute to the cultural preservation of the Hawaiian people. The performance of hula not only acts as a catalyst for recounting history, but it also preserves the linguistic heritage through the oli.

Some, like Kanakaole even refer to themselves as hula mediums, where the rhythm of the land and ancestral legacy move through her as a primal force of nature.

If you plan to visit Hawaii in April, you may also consider purchasing tickets to the Merrie Monarch Festival. The festival celebrates the legacy of King Kalakaua who inspired the perpetuation of Hawaiian “traditions, native language and arts.” At the Merrie Monarch Festival, you can witness hula competitions, a Hawaiian arts fair, hula shows, and a parade through downtown Hilo.

Now that you know some of the cultural background of dancing the hula, go on and spread your knowledge to help Native Hawaiians preserve their cultural milieu.


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