Hula Yesterday and Today

Hula yesterday and today is an important part of Hawaiian culture

Hula Yesterday and Today

In many world cultures, the storyteller is sacred. The hula dancer is a storyteller. Hula is not just a dance; it’s a form of communication. Hula tells a story through the interaction of body language, music, and the dancer’s expressions. A hula dancer also tells the story of the past, present, and future; this is the story of hula yesterday and today.

Hula has always been an important part of Hawaiian culture
Hula has always been an important part of Hawaiian culture

The Origin of Hula

Where did the hula come from? It depends which legends you believe. Some myths state that in ancient times, perhaps even during the time of the gods, hula was only performed by men. Of course, there’s no way to prove this. There’s also evidence that women were involved in the dancing of hula from the beginning.

Another legend tells of an ancient Hawaiian goddess of hula named Laka, who also reigns over plants, flowers, and forests. Some stories say she originated from the island of Molokai. Other versions state Laka was created by the sister of Pele, the volcano goddess, as a way to keep Pele entertained and calm. Other legends place Laka as a niece of the goddess Pele, making her part of Pele’s family.

The factual history of hula is an equally complex and confusing story. Christian missionaries, who came to Hawaii in the early 1800s, disapproved of hula. Although they thought it was erotic and frivolous. they could not forbid Hawaiians to dance. Hawaii had its own monarchy, and only royalty could make that decree. Interestingly enough, when Queen Ka’ahumanu finally decided to ban hula, most Hawaiians disregarded her. And they continued to dance their beloved hula without serious repercussions.

In 1874, King Kalakaua decided to bring hula back into the public sphere. He made sure hula was included in all royal celebrations. The Merrie Monarch Festival, a modern annual hula competition, was named in his honor.

Hula Yesterday and Today: The Two Main Varieties

Hula Kahiko

Uliuli are used in hula kahiko
Uliuli are used in hula kahiko

The “ancient style” of hula is called hula kahiko. This is the style that was performed in the days of the Hawaiian monarchs. It is accompanied by chants called mele. The instruments used are the ipu, a gourd drum; uliuli, gourd rattles decorated with feathers; and puili, split bamboo sticks.

Hula Auana

In the early and mid-1900s, foreign influence began to enter into Hawaiian music and affect hula dancing. Tourism, especially, changed hula to cater to the tastes of visitors to the islands. Today, hula auana blends traditional elements with newer styles. It is characterized by the use of the ukulele and the upright bass, among other non-indigenous instruments.

The Importance of the Halau

Hula yesterday and today - dancers and musicians ca. 1907
Hula dancers and musicians ca. 1907

The ancient definition of halau is a meeting place for the instruction of hula. In pre-European-contact Hawaiian culture, hula students lived within the halau to prepare for celebrations and ceremonies. These students understood that their main purpose was to entertain the chiefs and gods; therefore, they would spend much of their time in the halau undergoing demanding training in the art of hula. In modern times, while a halau may still be a physical space, it’s is more commonly understood to be something like a club for teaching and learning the art of hula.

A halau can be a hula studio, but not every hula studio is a halau. A hula studio is a business where dance instruction is conducted in exchange for payment. A true halau, however, is about the communication of information from a kumu hula (hula master) to a student. A financial transaction doesn’t need to occur.

Famous Kumu Hula

Each halau is headed by a kumu hula who has had formal training in a specific hula tradition. Often, the art of hula is passed down from one generation of a family to the next The kumu hula serves as a living textbook of hula for his or her hālau. These masters hold all the knowledge necessary to tell stories through hula.

In Hawaiian culture, kumu hula are respected and honored. Very often, kumu hula spend their lives teaching hula and spreading their knowledge to countless students. The following are famous kumu hula and their opinions on the world of hula yesterday and today.

Nalani Kanaka‘ole

Kumu Hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole learned the art of hula as it was passed down through her family. Her grandmother was Mary Kekuewa Kanaele Fujii, a kumu hula who trained in an ancient style of hula called ‘aiha‘a. Nalani Kanaka’ole’s mother, Edith Kanaka’ole, was also a kumu hula and chanter. Nalani Kanaka’ole still teaches hula at Halau o Kekuhi.

For Nalani Kanaka’ole, hula embodies the natural world and ancient mysticism of the Hawaiian islands. She has seen hula evolve as the face of the islands has changed, blending the old with the new.

Puanani Alama

At 89 years old, Puanani Alama has been teaching hula for over 70 years and continues to teach the art to this day. Kumu Hula Puanani Alama is the last surviving Merrie Monarch judge from the original festival held in 1963. About the hula, Puanani Alama has been quoted as saying, “Any nationality, as long as you dance the hula, you are part Hawaiian…It’s anyone who loves it.”

Minerva K. Malakaua Pang

Kumu Hula Minerva K. Malakaua Pang began dancing hula as a toddler. As she grew older, she would have to sneak around to dance, because her grandfather wanted her to concentrate on books and school.

Minerva K. Malakaua Pang has mixed feelings about hula as a dance competition. Although she has judged the Merrie Monarch in the past, she feels strongly that hula should remain more an expression of art rather than a structured dance for the competition to win. Her opinion is not uncommon in the traditional hula community.

Hula Festivals and Shows

Although hula can be enjoyed at Hawaii resorts and commercial luaus, more traditional hula is found at festivals and smaller shows. Here are a few venues where hula is shared with the public.

Merrie Monarch Festival

King Kalakaua revived hula in Hawaii after decades of suppression
King Kalakaua revived hula in Hawaii after decades of suppression

Each spring, a week-long festival takes place in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hula dancers representing halau from all over the United States—and beyond—gather for the annual dance competition.

The Merrie Monarch festival started as an effort to draw tourists to Hawaii during the slow spring months. To differentiate itself from other tourist events, the Merrie Monarch Festival defined itself as an homage to authentic Hawaiian culture, both ancient and modern. To this day, audiences from around the world travel to the Big Island to watch the festival. Because of its massive popularity, tickets to the Merrie Monarch Festival can be difficult to obtain.

In a statement on its website, the Merrie Monarch Festival notes that it’s committed to ” Perpetuating the traditional culture of the Hawaiian people. Developing and augmenting an existing knowledge of Hawaiian arts and crafts through workshops, demonstrations, exhibitions, and performances of the highest quality and authenticity. Reaching individuals who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in the festival through live broadcasts and social media, enriching the future lives of all of Hawaii’s children.”

Prince Lot Hula Festival

Not a competition, the Prince Lot Hula Festival is the largest hula festival of its kind in Hawaii. Held at Iolani Palace in Honolulu, the festival demonstrates the beauty of more than 20 halau from all across the Hawaiian islands. The festival lasts two days and is named after Prince Lot Kapuaiwa, also known as King Kamehameha V.

Ku Mai Ka Hula

Hula has always been an important part of Hawaiian culture
Dancers at a hula festival

Held each September in Kahului on the island of Maui, the Ku Mai Ka Hula is an adult hula competition (there is a separate event in the springtime for young dancers). The Ku Mai Ka Hula allows entries from halau in Japan and the US mainland as well as those based in Hawaii.

Pan-Pacific Hula Festival

In July, the Pan-Pacific Hula Festival is held in Honolulu. At this festival, halau from Japan have the opportunity to perform onstage in Hawaii. The Pan-Pacific Hula Festival demonstrates how enthusiastic millions of people in other countries are to learn and participate in hula.

Keiki (Youth) Hula Competitions

In March, the Hula O Na Keiki is held on Maui. This competition is for young hula dancers ages 5 to 17. The Hula O Na Keiki is a weeklong event that brings a lighthearted and youthful experience to hula competition. In July, the Queen Liliuokalani Keiki Hula Competition is held in Honolulu to celebrate young hula dancers performing both modern and traditional hula.

Hula Yesterday and Today…and Tomorrow

Hula yesterday and today - dancers and musicians in the time of Kalakaua
Hula dancers and musicians in the time of Kalakaua

Hula may have changed dramatically over the past 200 years, but its evolution has also allowed it to spread far beyond the Hawaiian islands. Hula’s beauty cannot be contained, and to keep hula alive, it must be shared. Hula is timeless as well as borderless.

Hula is part of the fabric of Hawaii. It’s not only Hawaii’s past and present, but also its future.

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