Hula is Life: The Legacy of Hawaii
By Michele Bigley

An accomplished dancer who has mastered many forms struggles to get in the groove of hula, the story telling moves from the distant Pacific islands.

Hula dancers in Hawaii

Three thousand miles from Hawaii, in a chilly studio on the California coast, I swooped into my koholo—a traditional hula side step. My hula teacher, or Kumu, stopped tapping her ipu gourd. “We bend our knees to humble oneself. You’re not connecting,” she whispered, dropping her head as though just the sight of us white women trying to express this dance shamed her.

I had been taking hula classes in northern California for months, and as a dancer, I expected that I could easily pick up the eight foundational steps of this ancient dance. Yet as I swayed side to side, my connection to these movements felt flimsy, as if I were a tourist in my own body, unable to fully inhabit what many of my teachers called the soul of the dance. This letting go of mental chatter to fully inhabit the body. The music guiding the steps; the body offering a primal reaction.

In studying most every style of diaspora dance, contemporary dance, and ballet for decades, the only one I have struggled to connect with was hula. Yet as I tried to embody the movements, swooping into my koholo, my Kumu stood, stepped into her office, and closed the door flanked with tapa cloth. Hula, it seemed, was as foreign as the culture that birthed it.

Was it possible for me, a woman with a deep connection to the islands—but no Hawaiian blood or zip code—to connect to the movements on a deeper level? Might learning more about this ancient dance illuminate a physical understanding of these illusive movements? Or could hula only be its purest self in Hawaii?

Kumu and dancers Photo credit Lanikuhonua

Hula at its Source

Rain greeted me in Honolulu: a sweet tropical sprinkle associated with Hawaii’s state rainbow emblem. Kumu La’akea Perry agreed to meet at Lanikuhonua, a former escape for Hawaiian royalty, and now home to his hula school. A mongoose sprinted around a koa tree, inviting a smile from Perry’s lips. Big-chested, with a voice that seemed as if it could summon his ancestors, Perry brought hula’s warrior spirit home to the boys on the west shore by offering free classes, reconstructing hula’s roots through community building. He nodded toward the droplets and explained how water connected the islands, translating to the dance itself, bridging the space between the land and people through storytelling.

Perry added that nowhere else in Hawaii could better showcase the unwritten history of hula than Honolulu’s Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. The next day I trekked through the Honolulu traffic to visit the 125-year-old Hawaiian Hall. Regal cloaks made from tropical bird feathers, and artifacts from the Tahitians who settled on the islands between the 800s and 1200s (the first humans to embrace hula as a cultural glue) lined the walls.

While history says Hawaiian goddesses first introduced hula on the north shore of Kauai at Lohi’au’s Temple, scholar Dr. Adrienne Kaeppler, author of Ha’a and Hula, proved that Tahitians and Marquesas Islanders first brought ancestral dancing to the islands. Traditionally the male priests performed the sacred Ha’a, a ritual movement made up of simple footwork and hand gestures that illustrated the myths and histories of each family group. These stories were passed down from the kings and teachers.

Hula, on the other hand, is performed by men and women, and has continued to evolve since its arrival. Today kumu hula travel all the way to Japan and Europe to teach classes. Yet on display was a pahu—a large drum from the breadfruit tree only used for the hula kahiko, a chant-led dance typically performed for special events. This proved that some elements of this sacred dance were reserved for island practitioners. If an instrument considered the main artery of the dance, and one I had never laid eyes on in my classes back home, was any indication, there had to be other elements of hula that could only be experienced here on the islands.

Merry Monarch dancer

Hula for the Masses

Later that afternoon, on the grounds of the Waikiki Aquarium, professional hula performer Taina Malu from Diamond Head Luau explained that when the missionaries arrived in 1820, they considered hula dirty (all those women without tops), and abolished the dance. With no written language, dancers memorized chants and dances, not just as legends, but to attribute each person to their genealogy. Ultimately dancers gathered in private to memorize chants and remember not only their stories and legends, but also their ancestors.

Taina pointed to the performers now setting up palm fronds for luau visitors to twist into leis and added that though King Kalakaua brought hula back in 1880, calling it the “heartbeat of Hawaii,” once Hollywood embraced hula in the 1950s, everything changed. Plus since pure Hawaiian lineage had been delineated through travel, colonialism and economic hardship, when families began moving throughout the islands (and beyond), hula opened to interpretation.

No longer was hula a collection of methodical stories passed down from generations. As I saw that night, the crowds cheered the bikini-topped dancers as they shook to rapid musical changes and upbeat choreography and yawned over the more traditional hula. What Malu had said about modern audiences expecting more of hula made sense. No longer were they interested in a slow story that unwinds its meaning. The luau-style hula represented a faster, more vigorous style of dance shared by Pacific Islanders and not the traditional gentle storytelling meant to be shared with love.

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Read this article online at: Hula is Life: The Legacy of Hawaii

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Backroads and Byways of Hawaii

Buy Backroads and Byways of Hawaii at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Explorer's Guide Northern California

Buy Explorer's Guide Northern California at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Backroads & Byways of Northern California: Drives, Day Trips and Weekend Excursions

Buy Backroads & Byways of Northern California: Drives, Day Trips and Weekend Excursions at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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