Hula is the art of Hawaiian dance expressing all that we see, hear, feel, taste, touch, and smell; hula is life.”

Kumu Hula Maiki Aiu Lake

 

Hula, song (mele), and chant (oli) were the opera house, library, and cultural center of the Hawaiian people.”

–Historian Nathaniel B. Emerson

Hula occupies a powerful role in Native Hawaiian culture. This traditional practice has been used to honor Native Hawaiian deities, to share history, to pass along stories, to explain origins of natural phenomena, and to entertain—among other functions.

In this article, we’ll take you on a deep dive into hula, so you can better understand this multi-faceted art form. (Plus, you’ll have an even greater appreciation for hula the next time you catch a performance!) We’ll explore the modern perception of hula, review some hula history, explore the core movements that make up the dance, and discuss traditional hula attire, which is steeped in meaning.

Let’s start with the image of hula that many hold today.

The Modern Perception of Hula: What It’s Not

Hula Dancer

When they hear “hula,” some people think of a woman standing on a beach, wearing a grass (or cellophane) skirt, wearing a coconut bra, and waving her arms. This reductionist view of hula can be traced to the early 20th century, when American tourism to Hawaiʻi was gaining steam. Images of life in Hawaiʻi were romanticized and commercialized to draw visitors to the islands.

To be clear, hula was a form of entertainment for the Native Hawaiians. However, this one-dimensional view of hula reduces it to just entertainment and strips this meaningful practice of its greater cultural significance and historical context.

Today, you’ll find traditional hālau hula (hula schools) across Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, and the Big Island, where students study under kumu hula (hula teachers). While you’re in Hawaiʻi, make the time to see a traditional hula show. If you’ve only been aware of the cellophane-skirt stereotype, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the majesty, beauty, and power of this Native Hawaiian tradition.

Tip: You might hear people say “hula dancing.” Because hula essentially means “dance,” saying “hula dancing” is redundant—like saying “ATM machine” or “SAT test.”

Now, let’s go even further back to get a deeper appreciation for the role hula played in the lives of Native Hawaiians, both pre-contact and into the modern era.

A Brief History of Hula

Hula dancer on beach

Hula in Pre-Contact Hawaiʻi

The ancient form of hula is known as hula kahiko, which was the form practiced in Hawaiʻi in pre-contact times. Hula kahiko leverages traditional percussive instruments like the ipu (a gourd used to make percussive sounds), pahu (drum), kaʻekeʻeke (bamboo tubes stamped on the ground to make sound), ʻiliʻili (a set of stones used as castanets), and kālaʻau (wood sticks struck together to make sounds). Performers commonly stay seated or kneeling during hula kahiko performances.

To get a sense of hula kahiko, take a look at this video of the winners of the Merrie Monarch competition in this category:

Hula Practices in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi

Once Christian missionaries arrived in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in the early 1800s, they shared their disapproval of the Hawaiians’ hula practices. After Queen Kaʻahumanu converted to Christianity, she banned public hula performances in 1830.

Even though hula continued to be practiced—sometimes in secret—it took the ascendancy of King David Kalākaua to start a true revival. King David Kalākaua made hula a prominent aspect of his official coronation in 1883, restoring hula to public prominence.

Hula After the Events of 1893

Once the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown in 1893, Hawaiian culture was actively suppressed in the islands. Children were punished for speaking Hawaiian, and the language was not taught in schools. Traditional practices, including hula, waned.

In the 1960s, interest in hula began to flower. The Merrie Monarch Festival was established in 1964, named in honor of King David Kalākaua, who championed the culture of the Native Hawaiian people during his reign. Interest in Native Hawaiian culture and the Hawaiian language continued to blossom during the 1970s Hawaiian Renaissance.

"Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people." –King David Kalākaua

Today, you’ll often see the modern style of hula performed—hula ʻauana. Some consider this style less formal than hula kahiko. Hula ʻauana often tells a story, accompanied by song and modern instruments like the guitar and the ʻukulele.

To get a sense of the style of hula ʻauana, check out this video of the winners in this category from the Merrie Monarch festival:

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Despite their differences, both styles of hula are deeply rooted in their desire to preserve and share Native Hawaiian stories, traditions, and values.

Now that you’ve got a sense of the history of hula, let’s explore its practices a little more deeply.

The Movements of Hula

Hula dancer

The best way to learn hula is to find a kumu hula, ideally one who has learned from their own kumu hula and received their blessing to teach hula.

However, if you’d like to get a taste of what hula is all about, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube that will teach you the basics.

For example, check out the iHula Hawaii series on basic hula steps:

More than 30 traditional hula steps have been documented, including the kaʻo, kāholo, hela, and Kalākaua, which are all taught in the YouTube series above.

Arm movements in hula are very specific. Many of them depict natural phenomena, like cliffs, the ocean, flowers, the moon, rain, and more. You can see several demonstrated in this video:

Hula involves connecting all of these movements seamlessly, while embodying the meaning of the accompanying music and/or the chant.

Children can start to learn basic hula movements as young as three years old, and some students dance well into their eighties. Although the art takes a lifetime to truly master, it’s open to students of all ages.

Do You Have to Know the Hawaiian Language to Study Hula?

Vicky Holt Takamine of PA‘I Foundation says yes: “You have to study the language in order to be able to perform the hula, to understand the hula,” she notes. You will see some modern hula performed to English-language songs, but the majority of hula chants and songs are in Hawaiian. Just like serious opera students study the languages they sing in, you’ll get a lot more out of hula if you also study ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language).

Finally, let’s explore one more important facet of hula—what the dancers wear.

Traditional Hula Attire

Everything has meaning in a hula performance, including the clothing and adornments the dancers wear. Every article is designed to enhance the performance and draw the audience in through color, shape, sound, and even scent.

Traditional hula attire includes:

Pāʻū (Skirt) / Malo (Loincloth)

Both women and men may wear pāʻū (skirts) when they dance. The early Native Hawaiians made pāʻū out of kapa (bark cloth). Today, you might see pāʻū made out of ti leaves or fabric. Men may also choose to wear a malo, a traditional loincloth, while dancing.

Pre-contact, both women and men didn’t wear clothing above their waists. Today, women commonly wear blouses of varying designs.

Lei

Lei are worn both around the neck and around the head (lei poʻo). Lei poʻo are more often associated with hula kahiko, while lei worn around the neck (or simply flowers tucked behind one ear) are more commonly worn during hula ʻauana. The scent of the flowers or materials used in the lei adds yet another dimension to the performance.

Both men and women wear lei, and the style and materials are chosen based on the hula being performed. For example, when performing a hula honoring a specific deity, material related to that deity will be selected.

Kūpeʻe (Bracelets/Anklets)

Kūpeʻe are decorations worn around the wrists and ankles. They’re made from a variety of materials, including flowers, leaves, shells, feathers, and nuts.

Some kūpeʻe are chosen because of the sound they make when the dancers move—or the scent they emit, in the case of flowers and leaves—engaging the dancers and the audience on yet another level.

Now that you understand how much care goes into selecting hula clothing and adornments, you can understand why hula practitioners might roll their eyes at cellophane skirts and coconut bras. During the next hula show you attend, pay special attention to what the performers wear. It will only deepen your appreciation for the overall experience.

The Art of Hula Lives on in Hawaiʻi

Hula is more than just entertainment—and it’s more than just a dance. It’s a living expression of Hawaiian history, culture, and storytelling. Throughout Hawaiʻi’s history, hula has endured, thanks to the kumu and their students who kept the tradition alive. While you’re in Hawaiʻi, don’t miss the opportunity to experience the authentic expression of this incredible performance art—and appreciate its history.

Planning a permanent move to Hawaiʻi? We’d love to assist with a safe, easy, and affordable move to the Aloha State. With offices on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi, and both sides of the Big Island, we can help you move anywhere in Hawaiʻi. Just give our team a call, and we’ll put together a complimentary quote for your move.

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