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Hula Article

This article is written by Professor Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman of the University of Michigan.  It is terrific!


The dance known as hula was developed in the Hawaiian Islands by their original Polynesian settlers, who migrated there by outrigger canoes from southeastern Pacific islands beginning in the fifth century CE (current epic.) Two-way voyaging continued for several centuries, during which seafarers brought domesticated animals, plant seeds and cuttings, and all the various cultural necessities for life on uninhabited islands. Other ethnic groups have come to Hawaii since the first European contact in 1778: Western (mainly British, American, and Portuguese) and Asian (mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino) settlers have contributed to Hawaii’s present multicultural dance culture. The hula, however, has remained largely uninfluenced by other dance traditions.

The origins of hula are shrouded in legend. One story describes the adventures of Hi’iaka, who danced to appease her fiery sibling, the volcano goddess Pele. The Hi’iaka epic provides the basis for many present-day dances.

In the pre-European period, hula was closely related to religious practices. Extant dances accompanied by the pahu (sharkskin-covered log drum, used in temple ceremonies) appear to be the most sacred, dedicated to the gods. As late as the early twentieth century, ritual and prayer surrounded all aspects of hula training and practice. Teachers and students were dedicated to Laka, goddess of the hula, and appropriate offerings were made regularly.

American Protestant missionaries who arrived in 1820 introduced Christianity and prevailing Western values. With the support of converted high-ranking chiefs, they denounced and banned the hula as heathen. Declining numbers of hula practitioners therefore taught and performed clandestinely through the mid-nineteenth century.

The reign of King David Kalakaua (1874-1891) was a transitional phase for Hawaiian performing arts. Over the objections of christianized Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians, known experts were gathered at his court and encouraged to practice the traditional arts. In this favorable era, hula practitioners merged Hawaiian elements of poetry, chanted vocal performance, dance movements, and costumes to create a new form, the hula ku’i (ku’i means “to combine old and new”). The pahu appears not to have been used in hula ku’i, evidently because its sacredness was respected by practitioners; the ipu (a gourd, Lagenaria sicenaria) was the indigenous instrument most closely associated with hula ku’i.

Interest in older chant-accompanied hula waned in the early twentieth century. Newer song-accompanied hula captured the attention of tourists and Hollywood film audiences, which contributed to a growing entertainment industry in Hawaii. Concessions to non-Hawaiian audiences included English-language lyrics, less allusive pictorial gestures, and sex appeal added by emphasized hip movements, removing the hula from its former religious context. Perhaps the most enduring images of hula in the 1930s and 1940s are those of dancers in cellophane skirts and seductive satin sarongs. Once again, practitioners of the older hula perpetuated it quietly in private circles.

A resurgence of ethnic pride has raised interest in pre-ku’i performing arts since the early 1970s. Chant- accompanied hula has been revived, and new dances are choreographed in the older style, eclipsing the song- accompanied form in popularity, especially among younger Hawaiians. Contemporary practitioners divide hula into hula kahiko (ancient hula), comprising older chant-accompanied dances, and hula ‘auana (modern hula), comprising newer song-accompanied dances. This betrays a poor understanding of the direct continuity of textual, musical, and movement elements from the old form through the hula ku’i into the new form. Many texts are extant in chanted and sung versions.

Hula is now highly visible, especially in two annual competitions. At the Merrie Monarch Festival each April on the island of Hawaii, male and female groups compete in hula kahiko and hula ‘auana categories, and solo female dancers vie for the title Miss Aloha Hula. The King Kamehameha Traditional Hula and Chant Competition each June on Oahu features competitions for male, female, and mixed groups in hula kahiko and hula ‘auana. Popularity also derives from the introduction by younger choreographers of faster and flashier movement designed to maintain visual interest, since audiences (and, indeed, many dancers) no longer understand the Hawaiian-language texts.

The term hula refers to movement and gestures. Hula, however, cannot be performed without mele (poetry), the most important component. Mele are records of cultural information ranging from sacred mele pule (prayers) and mele inoa (name chants, many for chiefs) to topical mele ho’oipoipo (love songs) and mele ‘aina (songs praising the land); the type of mele used is one way of classifying the dances. Allusion is greatly valued in the poetry, and hula gestures are a secondary level of abstraction; they do not tell the entire story but rather interpret key aspects of the mele. The concept of hula therefore involves mele and its recited realization in performance (there was no concept of “music” in Hawaiian culture).
Older chant-accompanied dances may be performed in a standing or sitting position. In standing dances, performers are divided into ‘olapa, who execute the dance movements, and ho’opa’a, who chant the text and provide the percussive instrumental accompaniment.

While hand and arm gestures interpret the text, named foot motifs are executed continuously as a movement ostinato. Some motifs are kaholo (stepping side to side), ‘uwehe (stepping in place, then lifting and dropping heels), and ‘ami (circular pelvic shifts and tilts). The kawelu (stepping forward and back with one foot) was introduced with the hula ku’i. A close correspondence exists between foot motifs and ipu and pahu rhythmic patterns: change in one is normally simultaneous with change in the other, often at the start of a new phrase, at a narrative juncture, or in the textless interlude between verses of the mele. The organization of foot motifs by phrase or verse in song-accompanied hula ku’i remains conceptually the same as in older hula, despite the replacement of ipu and pahu accompaniment by guitar and ukulele.

Performers in sitting dances are simultaneously musicians. They perform gestures while chanting and accompanying themselves with percussive instruments. The most commonly used instruments are the ‘uli’uli (feather-decorated gourd rattle), pu’ili (split bamboo rattle), ‘ili’ili (waterworn stone pebbles, two in each hand, played in a manner similar to castanets), and kala’au (sticks).

The following proverb, used by hula practitioners, is a powerful cultural sanctioning of stylistic and choreographic differences that distinguish subtraditions of hula:

‘A’ohe i pau ka ‘ike i ka halau ho’okahi.
(All knowledge is not contained in only one school.)

Several major surviving sub-traditions can be attributed to a handful of practitioners who maintained their knowledge into the 1960s and 1970s. They are responsible for the survival of older chant-accompanied hula into the 1980s and 1990s and are finally being accorded a recognition they have long deserved.

Iolani Luahine (1915-1978), trained by her aunt Keahi Luahine (1877-1937), earned fame as a performer of chant-accompanied hula; she was recognized in 1947 by modern dancer Ted Shawn as “an artist of world stature.” She was featured in two documentary films (1960, 1976) and several television programs. She passed her knowledge to her niece, Hoakalei Kamau’u (born 1929).

Mary Kawena Pukui (1895-1986) was trained along with her adopted sister Patience Wiggin Bacon (born 1920) by Keahi Luahine. Both were also trained by Joseph Ilalaole (1873-1965) of Puna, Hawaii. Pukui was most active as a scholar, writing three important papers on hula (reprinted in Barr&egravere et al., 1980). Her knowledge, a rare combination of experience and scholarship, has made her one of the most significant living resources on Hawaiian culture. Pukui passed her repertory to her daughter, Pele Pukui Suganuma (1931-1979), but Bacon has been the sole practicing link to Keahi Luahine.

Eleanor Hiram Hoke (1930-1983) was trained by her adopted grandmother Keaka Kanahele (1881-1940). Hoke taught many of her traditions to Edith McKinzie, who is known today primarily as a scholar and teacher of chant. Hoke was, however, featured in one documentary teaching film (1963).

(Emily) Kau’i Zuttermeister (1908-1994) is the primary student of Pua Ha’aheo (1886-1953), a dancer-chanter of Oahu who taught the Kauai Island repertory. Zuttermeister was the first hula master honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with the National Heritage Fellowship in 1984. Zuttermeister’s traditions are being carried on by her daughter Noenoelani Zuttermeister Lewis.

Edith Kanaka’ole (1913-1979) was trained by her mother Mary Kanaele (c.1900-c.1955) in a Hawaii Island tradition of dances especially relating to the goddess Pele. Their emphatic dance style is famed for its low bent-knee stance. Kanaka’ole passed her knowledge to her daughters Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele and Nalani Kanaka’ole, who were honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with the National Heritage Fellowship in 1993.

In the revival of Hawaiian performing arts in the 1970s, one of the most influential figures has been Ma’iki Aiu Lake (1925-1984), whose primary teacher was Lokalia Montgomery (1903-1978), a student of Mary Kawena Pukui. Lake, a teacher of hula ‘auana since 1948, took the unprecedented step in 1972 of training teachers in hula kahiko. Within three years, thirty-nine students graduated as kumu hula (hula teacher); their groups dominated hula competitions in the mid-1970s until other young teachers professing hula kahiko appeared. The status of Lake’s teachers was considerably enhanced by her institutionalized sanction, as well as by the success and popularity of their dancers. In the 1990s dance troupes are largely groups of anonymous individuals in the shadow of their teacher’s reputation; from these ranks, however, will come teachers of yet another generation to perpetuate the hula.

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