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Sep 13, 2017

The Heroes of Hula

Whether it's streamed live in HD via the Merrie Monarch Festival, or it's an impromptu performance at a family lu'au, it can't be denied that hula is an integral part of island culture. However, there was a time—not so long ago—when hula was outlawed, forced to go underground, and kept alive by a few brave individuals who preserved their sacred knowledge in the face of discrimination.

Right about now, you might be asking yourself, "How could something so fundamental to Hawaiian culture be forced into hiding?" According to Kumu Hula Makanani Salā, an instructor at Windward Community College, hula was forced underground as a result of Western missionaries, who viewed the practice as being out of step with their understanding of Christianity. According to Makanani, following the death of Kamehameha the Great in 1819, Queen Ka'ahumanu, (a recent convert to Christianity) banned hula from being performed publicly in 1830 under the persuasion of missionaries.

"Calvinist Missionaries arrived in the islands in 1820, and they weren't really fans of singing and dancing," shares Makanani. "If you read their descriptions of hula, they'll refer to it as 'licentious' and 'savage,' and that the Hawaiians were half-naked and gyrating their hips ... dances were being done to 40 different gods.''

Makanani continues to explain that, "After Ka'ahumanu gets baptized, she eventually decides to outlaw any public performance of hula, but hula doesn't really die … it goes underground."

Hula dancers from the 19th century, possibly photographed at King Kalakaua's inauguration. Photo: By not given (Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-32-9a-035) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To keep the practice alive, some families took it upon themselves to pass down the knowledge of hula. At the forefront of these revered hula caretakers stood the Kanaka'ole family, the ancestors of famed designer Kūha'o. As the son of aloha wear icon Sig Zane and Kumu Hula Nalani Kanaka'ole, Kūha'o has become revered both for his sense of design and for his deep-seated knowledge of hula. "We have a lineage that has remained unbroken since the beginning from our teacher, Naholokai, over to my great grandma and my grandma, Edith, and then to my mom, Nalani," proudly states Kūha'o.

Understandably, Kūha'o feels a responsibility to uphold the traditions of his family's connection to hula. "Kuleana [responsibility] is a funny word, because it's both a responsibility and a privilege," he continues to explain. "As a privilege, hula has given me an opportunity to see the world. But at the same time, there is a large responsibility on my part to make sure I pass along my knowledge and keep the tradition going."

Kūha'o has been dancing for Hālau O Kekuhi since he was 9 years old, and incorporates the teachings of his cultural practice into his professional life as a designer. His kupuna (ancestors) weathered the tumultuous times of the 19th century all the way to the present, preserving his family's signature low-to-the-ground style, also known as "aiha'a," and helped to preserve hula through some of its darkest days.

"My great grandma, Mary Kanaele Kenao, went into hiding when she was a kid, because hula wasn't necessarily allowed in the late 1800s to the early 1900s," he says. "In that hiding, she literally had to go out into rural Puna to learn from her teacher [Kahlolowaa]. At that time, when hula was banned, she didn't really come out into the public. It wasn't until it was accepted again that she was able to perform it and continue her teaching."

In fact, it wasn't until King Kalākaua's coronation in 1883 that hula was allowed to be performed in public, and Hawaiian practitioners like Kūha'o's great grandma could come out of hiding and freely perform. Although Kalākau ruled over Hawai'i, Kūha'o's great grandma was a part of Queen Emma's court. Furthermore, the Kamehameha family also had hula dancers that were taught through apprenticeships at the same time.

Following the public resurgence of hula, the 20th century bore witness to a new awakening of Hawaiian culture, leading to our present day infatuation with the practice. "You can't have hula without language," adds Kumu Makanani Salā. "Language is the carrier of culture, so if we don't have the ability to use our language, we can't truly understand our culture." For future generations of Hawaiians to fully connect with their past and their culture, it was of the utmost importance to preserve hula—all of which causes us to pause and give thanks to the brave kumu of old, who preserved a cherished lifestyle for countless generations to come.

Every month, Ward Village host Kona Nui Nights, a free monthly event honoring hula, Hawaiian language, and music. Click here to learn more.

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