Hawaii Dance

Hawaiian dance is rich in history and culture

Cutting a Rug

Dance is a form of cultural expression that can be seen across many different cultures, and throughout history. Hawaii has made this particular performing art an important part of its heritage.

When thinking of the tradition of dance in Hawaii, one of the first images that may come to mind is the well-known hula dance. What many people may not know, however, is that the history surrounding this dance had played an important role in helping to shape the cultural landscape of the islands.


Ancient Ritual

The hula kahiko, or old-style hula, is a very distinctive form of artistic and religious expression in the Hawaiian culture that incorporates dance with mele, a combination of music, song, and chanting. Although its exact origins are not known, hula has traditionally been performed as a part of religious ceremonies and was a sacred ritual very different from any other Polynesian dance. It was once believed that the hula ceremony was only performed by men, but sources have confirmed that hula was performed by both men and women who were trained at halau, special studios devoted to this performing art. The students of the halau were trained under the rigid instruction of the kuma hula who were expert teachers of dance and other performing arts. Pupils followed strict rules of conduct during their education such as not cutting their hair or nails, avoiding certain foods, and abstaining from sex.

The performers of the hula were fell under two classifications: olapa and the ho'opa'a. The olapa were the younger performers, who agilely carried out the dances, while the ho'opa'a played instruments such as ukuleles and guitars, and sang while kneeling or sitting. Traditional costumes were a part of the hula ritual, and the ancient dancers wore leis on their heads and shoulders, a skirt, or pau, made of tapa, and anklets called kupea that were made of dog-teeth or whale bone.

The hula was performed to mark the occurrence of monumental events, to honor distinguished chiefs, to greet important guests, or to pay homage to the spirits. Hawaiians also used the performance of the hula to praise certain places of beauty on the islands, various plants, animals, and even war. In Hawaiian history, the hula was performed to invoke the patron spirits Laka, Kapo, Pekem, and Hi'iaka, who were associated with natural elements of the islands like forests and volcanoes.

Each movement of the hula plays a significant part in the ritual, and symbolizes the dancer's story. In addition, the chants that accompany the movements play just as important of a role in the ceremony as the dance itself, and the words of the chants held the most importance in the ritual. Today, since most people don't understand the language used in the chants, more emphasis has been placed on the movements.

The ceremony was performed on platforms located in a heiau, or temple designated just for the enactment of the hula, which wasn't performed at anywhere else. An altar was set up on top of the platform, and decorated with vines and flowers in honor of the spirits. At the end do the ceremony, the graduates of the halau were honored with a great feast, at the end of which the altar was dismantled.

Some forms of hula were used only to commemorate serious event, while other variations of this ceremony were performed for entertainment purposes. When the early European settlers arrived on the islands, they were awed by the Hawaiians' grand performances of the hula, which were carried out by an impressive number of dancers. Like a play, the performances were carried out in several acts accompanied by chanters and instruments. The visitors' impressions soon changed, however, as some of the rituals dealt with sexual subjects, expressed metaphorically through dance, song, and poetry. During the Makahiki season, the Hawaiians used hula to give praise to the fertility of nature's elements, like the land and sea, as well as humans. It was during the height of one of these celebrations that the Western explorers landed on Kauai, and the Europeans found this celebration of sexuality to be lewd. In the 19th century, the hula became almost non-existent when Europeans banned the practice from the islands. The art reappeared in Hawaii in the late 1800's when King David Kalakaua formed his own hula troupe and encouraged them to learn the ancient ritual.

Modern Day Performance

Despite the efforts to get rid of hula in Hawaii, the ancient dance has made a tremendous come-back since the days of early colonization. Now, throughout Hawaii, there are hundred of halau hula, or hula schools, that have been established on the islands, as well as on the U.S. mainland, that teach thousands of students hula rituals. These institutes have helped to keep an important aspect of historic Hawaiian culture alive.

Modern hula, or hula'auana, evolved from the techniques and practices of the ancient hula rituals, though the present day ceremony has been influenced by Western cultures, namely Christianity. These Western influences incorporated Christian morality along with melodic harmony with the ancient ways, as well as changed the costumes of the performers. Like the ancient hula, hula'auana still tells a story, but may only go as far back to the events of the 1800s. Based on the various human experiences, modern hula is written to be a commentary on important people, places, or events, as well as an emotional outlet or way to express ideas. This singing and chanting of the hula has also been revised. The vocals have been adapted to the pop culture, and a lead singer sings on a major scale with occasional harmonies. Hula'auana also differs from the traditional practice in the instruments that are used.

Other Hawaiian Dance Genres

Although hula is the most popular genre of dance in Hawaii, there are plenty of other styles that are practiced throughout the islands. Here are some styles of dance found in the Aloha Islands:

  • Asian dance

  • Ballet

  • Ballroom

  • Belly dance

  • Contra

  • Country

  • Folk Dance

  • Salsa

  • Sign dancing

  • Square dancing

  • Swing

The dances of the Hawaiian islands give vacationers the opportunity to see how rich and fascinating the culture of the islands are, particularly with the hula ceremonies. During your visit you may want to check out a hula show or other dance performance while vacationing in gorgeous Hawaii.


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