Hula has become a symbol for the Hawaiian Islands. In 1778, Captain James Cook and his men became the first Westerners to discover Hawaii, and they recorded their impressions of Hawaiian life, including the first hula performed for them on Kaua’i.
Hollywood has long capitalized on the image of a beautiful young Hawaiian girl swaying to the music and the world has embraced it. Shirley Temple, Minnie Mouse, Dorothy Lamour and Elvis Presley all swiveled their hips in takeoffs of Hawai’i’s ancient folk dance.
Hula is a dance form accompanied by chant (oli) or song (mele). The essence of ancient hula was in the words, the chant, without which, to the Hawaiian mind, there would be no dance. Gourds, drums, split bamboo sticks, and other instruments only support the rhythm. Hula can be performed without instruments, but never without chanting. The chants are complex, poetic and rich with multi-levels of meaning.
Ancient hula is called kahiko and is accompanied by chant and traditional instruments. Hula, as it evolved under Western influence in the 19th and 20th centuries, is called auana (a word that means “to wander” or “drift”). It is accompanied by song and western-influenced musical instruments such as the guitar, the ukulele, and the double bass.
Christian missionaries arrived in Hawai’i in 1820 and many were appalled by the “heathenish” hula. They tried to abolish the dance, eventually convincing Christian converted royalty to declare it illegal. Hula survived because it was guarded and cherished by Hawaiians and practiced in remote, hidden locations.
King David Kalakaua is credited with returning the ancient hula to the public. Though he had learned the waltz, the minuet and the two-step, Kalakaua had also mastered the ancient chants taught by his grandmother. He encouraged the hula (more than 260 chants and dances were performed at his coronation), and he spurred the resurgence of Hawaiian culture generally.
David Kalakaua did more for the hula than reviving an ancient dance. During Kalakaua’s reign, the hula again became a “living tradition,” one that grew and evolved. Under Kalakaua’s patronage the Western forms of rhythm and melody, as expressed by hymn singing and band music, were amalgamated with the traditional hula forms. The ukulele, borrowed from Portuguese immigrants, was introduced along with the steel guitar.
Hula is taught in schools or groups called hlau. The teacher of hula is the kumu hula, where kumu means source of knowledge, or literally just teacher.
The Merrie Monarch Festival, fittingly named for Kalakaua, began in 1971 as a showcase of both ancient and modern hula. There are many hula pageants, competitions and foundations dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the dances and chants of the Hawaiian people.