Hawaiian Hula Dance 101
There’s a lot of hoopla on hula, the art form is known around the world – from little fishing villages in Japan to dance troupes in New York City.
You probably grew up seeing hula performed on TV, with tanned girls in grass skirts against a backdrop of swaying palms. Or it was the routine you learned for your college luau. At the very least, you know the hip gyrating moves from the hula hoop you played as a child. (Fun fact? Even though hula hoops sound like they were invented in Hawaii, the origins date back to a form of exercise and play in early fifth century, ancient Greece!)
But while many people have their own experience and personal memory of the dance, few know the background, history, and meaning of this storied art form which dates back to ancient Hawaii.
Traditionally accompanied by an “oli” (Hawaiian for chant) or “mele” (Hawaiian for song), hula today is known and celebrated around the world for its graceful moves and the images it conjures of balmy weather and Mai Tais on a sandy beach. But the origin of hula was born hundreds of years ago by Native Hawaiians to share stories through dance.
The two main categories of hula are hula ‘auana and hula kahiko. Prior to western arrival to Hawai‘i, the ancient form of hula performed was known as kahiko, and when performed, includes chant and traditional instruments (like the pahu hula, tall drums, or pahupahu, bamboo pipes). Under the influence of westerners, that form of hula evolved over the 19th and 20th centuries to what today is referred to as hula ‘auana (meaning to wander or drift). This newer form of hula is typically accompanied by song and western-influenced instruments like the guitar or ‘ukulele and is the one you probably see more of today on TV or in movies.
According to Hawaiian mythology, Laka is the goddess of love, the forests, and is also widely acknowledged as the patron of hula. Legend has it that Laka gave birth to hula on a sacred hill, Puu Nana, in Kaana on Molokai.
All hula dances derive from a series of traditional moves including:
- Ha’a: This is a basic stance, and how most hula begins. In this move, dancers stand erect with their knees bent.
- Lewa: Literally translated at “lift,” this step involves lifting the hips.
- Hela: One of the most basic movements of the feet, for hela, a dancer touches one foot to the side at about a 45-degree angle in front of their body. The dancer keeps their weight on the other foot and while maintaining the bent-knee stance. They return the foot to the starting position and repeat with the other foot.
- Ka’i: In this position, the dancer lifts one foot, then raises and lowers the heel of the opposite foot. The movement then repeats with the other foot.
- ‘Ami: This is a basic hip rotation with variations including the ‘Ami ‘ami, ‘Ami ‘ôniu and ‘Ami ku’upau.
- Holo: Similar to the lewa, appears as a running movement.
- Kâholo: To Kâholo a dancer performs the lewa move while traveling. The dancer first steps to one side and follows with the opposite foot, then steps to the same side again.
- ‘Uehe: In this move, the dancer lifts one foot and shifts their weight to the opposite hip when stepping down, then raises both heels to push the knees forward. These movements repeat on the opposite side.
- Lele: Another walking move, in this position, the dancer lifts their heel with each step.
Hula has a long and rich history as it struggled to find and make its mark in an evolving society.
- According to Hawaiian legend, the goddess of hula, Laka, gave birth to the hula dance on the island of Moloka‘i. When Captain Cook made landfall in Hawai‘i in 1779 Hawaiians had been performing hula for centuries.
- When protestant missionaries arrived to Hawaii in 1820 they were shocked by the Native Hawaiian’s open form of dancing and believed hula promoted old heathen beliefs.
- The missionaries launched an effort to eradicate hula in the islands and were able to convince Queen Kaahumanu, wife of Kamehameha I, to have it outlawed in 1830.
- Following Queen Kaahumanu’s death in 1832 some chiefs stopped recognizing the ban on hula, and in 1834 Kamehameha III openly disobeyed the previous “kapu” (law), forbidding the public performance of hula.
- Starting in 1851 public hula performances became regulated through a licensing system, with a heavy fee levied for each performance.
- During King Kalakaua’s reign hula enjoyed a public revival. Kalakaua said, “Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people,” and his coronations in 1883 and jubilee in 1886 both featured hula performances.
- In the 1890s and early 1900s, hula dancers and Hawaiian musicians toured the U.S. mainland. Usually female, the dancers danced in their grass skirts with musicians playing their kitschy Hawaiian melody on their steel guitars and ukulele.
- The Merrie Monarch Festival started in Hilo, Hawaii in 1963 when Helene Hale, the chairman of the County of Hawai‘i looked into new ways to attract visitors to the island during an economic downturn.
- Hula Girls, an award-winning Japanese film directed by Sang-il Lee hit Japanese theatres in 2006. Starring Yū Aoi , Yasuko Matsuyuki and Etsushi Toyokawathe film is based upon the real-life story of a group of girls using hula to save their small mining village, Iwaki.
- In 2008, members of a local hula dance troupe, the “Obama Hula Girls” made headlines as they helped the city of Obama, a fishing port town in Japan, celebrate the election of President Barack Obama.