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"Each movement of the foot and gesture of their hands and arms tell the stories..."

Jun 10, 2015

An Abbreviated History of Hula

On a warm summer evening in Ward Village, a hula hālau (or school in English) moves around the stage fluidly.

The dancers' intricate motions are perfectly synced with the rhythm of the mele (music, chant). The crowd gathered before the show follow the dancers' moves in awe. There's no denying that there's a special beauty in the art of hula. Each movement of the foot and gesture of their hands and arms tell the stories and history of the culturally rich Hawaiian Islands.

In old Hawai'i, before the arrival of Western missionaries, hula was danced for social enjoyment. Its chants preserved and told the epic tales, myths, history and philosophy of Hawaiian culture. A dancer's rigorous training and performance were taken so seriously, they were paid and materially supported by the ruling ali'i.

At its essence, the kahiko (or original hula) was the vehicle that helped to preserve Hawaiian history. According to Kumano Palani Kuala, a kupuna renowned for his mastery of hula, the dance was regarded as being more of a mental and spiritual connection to old Hawaii than simply a physical act. This unique style of hula was often accompanied by chants and percussion instruments. According to Tracey Lakainapali, who has written extensively about the cultural and historical significance of hula, "the dances and chants contain a magic that transcends their external power and beauty, filling both dancer and audience with aloha."

Multiple tales describe the mythic beginnings of hula, but the most-often heard is probably that of Pele - goddess of fire - and her sister Hi'iaka - goddess of hula. In this rendering, Pele begged her sisters to dance and sing for her, but only Hi'iaka stepped forward to perform and thus hula was born.

While Western missionaries attempted to put a halt to hula in the early 19th century, they couldn't stifle its sacred beauty and resonance with the people of Hawai'i. In the 1870s King David Kalakāua inspired a revival of lost Hawaiian traditions—including its ʻōlelo (native language) and hula. A renaissance ensued and hula 'auana (which loosely means a merging of old and new) arose.

Today, the islands are continuing on the journey of perpetuating those same Hawaiian traditions. Whether at Kona Nui Nights here in Ward Village, a backyard barbecue with friends, or the world renowned hula competition, the Merrie Monarch Festival, it's safe to say that hula is once again standing on solid ground in Hawai'i.

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Ward Warehouse Amphitheater Stage

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