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HULA: ANCIENT & MODERN

Hula is the soul of Hawaii expressed in motion. No one knows its exact origins but Hawaiians agree that the first hula was performed by a god or goddess which makes the dance a sacred ritual.

Some believe the hula was only danced by men, but legend and historical sources tells us both men and women danced. Hawaiian hula is unique and totally different from other Polynesian dances. Although it began as a form of worship during religious ceremonies, it gradually evolved into a form of entertainment.

Every movement in hula has a specific meaning, and every expression of the dancer's hands has great significance. The movements of a dancer's body might represent certain plants, animals, and even war. For example, in imitating a shark or waving palm tree, the true hula dancer believes he or she becomes the shark or palm.

Chants accompany the movements and aid in telling the dancer's story. Traditionally it was not the dancer's hands but the words that counted the most. Today, because so few understand the language of the chants, increasing emphasis has been placed on movements and gestures.

The costumes of the ancient dancers consisted of lei for the head and shoulders, pau or skirt (made out of tapa), and kupea or anklets fashioned out of dog-teeth or whale bone.


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Hula Kahiko (Ancient Hula) at the Merrie Monarch Festival - Big Island
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Hula Auana (Modern Hula)
Because it was a religious dance, the training of ancient hula dancers at the halau hula (hula school) was strict. Students followed elaborate rules of conduct (kapu) and had to obey their teacher (kumu). For example, dancers could not cut their hair or nails, certain foods were forbidden, and no sex was allowed. A memorizer (hoopaa) assisted the kumu with the chanting and the drumming. A head pupil, selected by the students, was in charge of discipline.

The students danced on a platform with an altar dedicated to Laka, decorated with vines and flowers. Their graduation was a special ceremony with a strict protocol. Graduating students remained in the halau for several days rehearsing, undergoing ritual purification in the sea, offering prayers, eating and so on. There was a graduation feast featuring a pig and, lastly, the dismantling of the altar followed by the ending of the kapu. The organization of today's halau hula is similar to that of the past. Source: Noted Hawaiian Scholar, George Kanahele, Pookela Course in Hawaiian Culture.

Some halau were located in a heiau (temple), in an area set apart for the hula. One of the best known halau can be found at Kee, near Haena on Kauai's north shore.

Hula kahiko (old style) is performed in traditional costume to accompanying chanting and percussion only. Hula auana (modern style) is accompanied by songs, ukuleles, guitars, and other instruments with dancers in imaginative costumes.

During the 19th century, the hula almost vanished because the missionaries considered it vile and heathen. King David Kalakaua is generally regarded as saving it during the late 1800's, when he formed his own troupe and encouraged the dancers to learn the old hula.

Today, several hundred halau hula (hula schools) and less formal hula groups are active on every island and the mainland, teaching hula to thousands of students and keeping the old ways and traditional Hawaiian culture alive.

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Keiki Hula (Children's Hula)
Hula continues to play a major role in the Hawaiian cultural revival begun in the 1970's.

Hula is the opera, theater, and lecture hall of the islands, all rolled into one.
Hula is history portrayed in the performing arts.

Hawaiian Culture Index
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