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Live Hula

       Hula is a uniquely Hawaiian form of dance that has become known worldwide. Anywhere from hula portrayed by classic old movies to the intense Merrie Monarch Festival to the toy hula girl wiggling on a trucker’s dashboard, most everybody knows something about hula. It has been described as the spirit of Hawaii and the keeper of Hawaiian folklore. Hula has been persecuted and resurrected among its own people. It has been kept alive through secrecy and the unwillingness to forget or give in. Hula has flourished in the hearts and minds of those who have had the opportunity to learn it. Through hulas own strength it has become essential to so many people’s lives world-wide, that it has become a way of life.


                The beginning of hula in Hawaii is a mystery. If you look at the cultures surrounding the Pacific you will find very many different hulas indeed. Tahitians, Samoans, Tongans, Maoris and even the people of Micronesia have their own versions and traditional dances. It is not known from whence the people of Hawaii brought with them the hula. But it is known that hula has been ingrained in Hawaiian culture since the beginning of its belief system. “Multiple tales describe the mythic beginnings of hula but the most-often heard is probably that of Pele and her sister Hi`iaka. In this rendering, the first hula was born when Pele begged her sisters to dance and sing for her. Only Hi`iaka stepped forward to perform. She danced for Pele using movements she’d practiced with her good friend Hopoe.” (HawaiiHistory.org)

Hula is indigenous to Hawaii for the simple fact that Hawaii stands alone in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, 2600 miles from any other piece of land. For thousands of years Hawaiians were able to breathe the life of their beliefs into the art of hula itself. Meles (chants) were made to appease gods and to win wars, meles were made to give thanks and to ask for direction, meles told of legends and remembered the past. Hula magically connected the living to the unknown. In the mind of a Christian it might be likened to saying prayers or giving communion. In ancient times it is said that the hula was only performed for special rituals or ceremonies and that only the ali’i (royalty) and kahunas (priests) were performed for. It was this threat, the threat of culture and Hawaiian dignitaries that got the hula outlawed in 1830. Christians were not just outlawing the hula, they were destabilizing a nation.

A victim of colonization and the world race to occupy any place foreign and paradisiacal, Hawaii became a target for British and American entrepreneurs. With the clash of countries and the oppression of the Hawaiian people, hula was outlawed and forced to be taught in secret. “With this attitude, missionaries made a strong effort to eradicate hula and in this goal they were strongly supported by some of the powerful ali'i who converted to Christianity. In 1825, Ka`ahumanu, wife of Kamehameha I, (decided after his regent death) was accepted into the church. In 1830 she forbade public performances of the hula.” This conversion from Hawaiian beliefs to Christianity made the hula an abomination. It was outlawed and the years that came after were full of ridicule, mockery and secrecy.

While the last of the ali'i fought to preserve some dignity for Hawaii and its descendants, hula had become a sort of greeting to travelers gracing the beaches of Honolulu. Even as far back as Captain James Cook it is said that the hula was performed for visitors as a gracious welcome to the Hawaiian Islands. What had changed in the psyche of the remotely bound Hawaiian? It cannot be said. The foreigners, whom were first dubbed as haoles, came and pillaged and killed with disease and muskets and cannons and they left the Hawaiian Islands forever changed. Still, when the people were outnumbered and grieving over a dead and broken nation, the hula was being performed.

If even inaccurate, hula has never been forgotten. During the 20th century hula was largely portrayed as a lure to sailors. The type-castings in Hollywood movies were racially controversial and the hula was made into a touristic value. Many of the movies performed were ignorant to the culture they were portraying and the hula became a story-less, manufactured, dash-board, kind of art. That hula girl on the dash? Probably inspired by this romantic Hawaiiana era of Americana. The focus during that period of time was not on the girl performing the hula but on that of the place it was being performed. This perception of hula reigned supreme until the 1970’s when hula was reborn with the Hawaiian Renaissance. During this time period The Merrie Monarch Festival, established in 1964 by George Na'ope, caused a great resurgence in the study and practice of ancient hula developed and danced before 1893.

Since the Hawaiian renaissance hula has grown into an international movement.  With people from all races now taking an interest in hula it is performed by people of all cultures. Especially in the U.S. mainland hula can be found in nearly every major city. There are competitions and festivals to celebrate hula and Hawaiian beliefs.

Hula is now mostly found in two major dance styles hula kahiko and hula ‘auana. Hula Kahiko is religious based and has formal guidelines and even restrictions on who can learn the dance. This form of hula is still considered sacred and some dances remain private. While hula ‘auana on the other hand is less formal, non-religious based and can be learned and performed by anyone. This second type of hula has western influence and involves contemporary subjects. If a student is serious about learning the hula they should learn kahiko first because it is this hula that is taught with “messages, powers, and energies that must be understood and used appropriately, otherwise a history is mistold and a lesson goes unlearned” (Kumu Hula).

There are a wide variety of hula dancers ranging from the semi-committed to the kumu hula (teacher). But one thing consistent with all hula dancers is that it is a love for the hula that inspires them to dance. If a hula dancer is not devoted, it will only be a matter of time before they no longer dance. If they are truly dedicated to dancing hula the available knowledge and experiences are endless.

Hula dancers together with a Kumu make up a group of dancers known as a halau. There are students, teaching assistants (kumus-in-training), olapa’s (senior dancers or soloists) and ho’opa’a’s (senior chanters). While everyone dances in a halau together they are each important to making the halau complete. Cooking, cleaning and helping to make costumes are responsibilities that fall to the halau as a whole. The whole experience is like becoming a family. Children are taught at a young age and encouraged to pray and embrace the Hawaiian culture. Through hard work there are steps to mastering hula. Anyone of the halau can accomplish becoming a kumu hula by moving up the ranks. It is through this dedication that hula becomes a way of life for so many.

Kumu Roselle Bailey describes her viewpoint of hula as this: “Hula is a way of life. It is a positive, life-giving force that involves the meanings of Laka (hula god/goddess, to tame, to domesticate, to allure, to attract; fond of, gentle, god of canoe makers), lama (tree, torch, light, lamp, enlightenment; used in medicine), and the deities of the hula… the discipline of the hula involves the domestication and taming of one’s self. We are trained to control ourselves so we may live with and be of service to our fellow beings without compulsory obligation. We are taught to be sensitive, considerate, humble, protective, unafraid, adaptable, and attractive. We are instructed in the art of healing, though today we depend more upon our medical doctors. We are also trained to enlighten so we may encourage moral and spiritual improvement. Again, because of our life-style this part of the training covers a longer period of time. These objectives are achieved through listening, watching, practicing and praying.”

Hula is so much more than just a dance it is a way of thinking and living. The Merrie Monarch festival is the Olympics of hula and people from all over the world come to perform and share themselves. The whole island of Hawaii is transformed into one huge family by the hula that is shared between each other. Merrie Monarch is a competition but truly committed dancers perform their best at all times whether it is on the Merrie Monarch stage or at practice.

There are five values that are essential to living hula. First there is Mana’o’i’o (faith). When Europeans first arrived in Hawaii they found a healthy population living without homelessness or poverty. The people of Hawaii had always lived spiritually, beginning and ending each day with prayer and religious practices and beliefs were intertwined in every aspect of life. This faith can be felt from hula dancers and their spiritual auras.

The second value of hula is ohana (family) this value ties the dancers to each other and to the past, present and future. It is a way to continue history, genealogy, and legends. The third value of hula is Mea’ai (food). Food being the essential part of sustaining life… Hawaiians were always working hard to grow and provide food for their communities. Sharing food was an enjoyed obligation and goes hand in hand with sharing hula.

The fourth value of hula is Le’a le’a (fun). Laughter and happiness are considered the best medicine and are still a part of hula today. You will see comic and flirtatious hulas performed that were intended to bring happiness and joy to audiences. The fifth value of hula is Na’au (feelings). Without feelings the hula is just an empty dance. If a dancer performs without heart it can be felt by not only the audience but by the halau that they are dancing with. It is said that a halau is only as good as their most un-skilled dancer.

In the film American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii, families in California show how they live these very basic values of hula. Kumu Sissy Kaio talks about how as a family making it in Hawaii is not always an easy task. With the cost of living being so high in Hawaii, many people of Hawaiian descent find themselves living on the mainland simply out of the necessity to survive. With the relocation of the people of Hawaii the culture and hula have traveled with them to these new places. In California you will find many halaus and the families that have come together to keep their culture alive. They practice together, eat together and help with each other’s families.

In the same film Kumu Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu talks about the differences between hula in Hawaii and hula in the mainland. He starts off by talking about how Hawaii has changed and that being away for so long has impacted his own perception of Hawaii and the survival of its culture. He says that just by being Hawaiian he can take the islands with him anywhere but when he goes home now the islands themselves have changed. Nothing has been preserved and “no mountain has been left untouched”. The hula that Kumu Mark produces is somewhat contemporary and is a little more fast-paced than traditional hula but this does not classify his hula as “second-class”.  

The third Kumu featured in this film is Kumu Patrick Makuakane who says that he had every intention of returning home to teach hula but stayed in San Francisco because of the large extended family that has grown there. He talks of how the poetic symbolism of hula connects his people to their past and speaks to people of all kinds. He emphasizes history and tradition and tells the stories of the past through hula. He is not afraid to tell the tragedies of Hawaii’s past and uses the stage as a platform to educate his audiences about everything from the devastation of the Hawaiians population from disease and murder in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, to the overthrow of the monarchy and the illegal annexation of Hawaii as a nation. It is through the hula that the history of Hawaii will be told near and far. Oral history is only strong if someone is willing to tell the stories and if someone else is willing to listen. Through hula Hawaii will stay alive forever, even if the bloodline ends.

In other places around the world hula has taken on a life of its own. For instance Japan has embraced hula to the extreme. With more than 220 halaus and 250,000 students in 2007 hula has become a billion dollar industry. Kumu Hulas from Hawaii are paid to come and teach hula, its values, translations, and meanings to thousands of Japanese students. To be considered a “real” hula dancer in Japan is very desirable but the question of whether or not it is “true” hula has come under fire.

“Some of the comments from those in the industry are most interesting, however, and point up some concern about the traditions, customs, and how training and rewards in the hula schools of Japan differ from those in Hawaii nei… “Many of the (Japanese) hula teachers really are not very good,” said one Japanese musician. “Some only know how to dance three songs. Anyone who can dance three songs can teach hula.”   A former dancer told of Japanese women paying thousands of dollars to visiting Hawaiian kumu hula for a Hawaiian name. “It is very special for a student dancer to have a Hawaiian name and it means more if it is given by a kumu hula from Hawai`i,” she said. “They don’t mind if the kumu hula may not speak Hawaiian. They don’t know” (Haugen, Keith & Carmen).

Even with this question of integrity it is amazing that hula has become so popular in Japan. Many of those who are learning hula in Japan come to Hawaii to perform in competitions such as the King Kamehameha Hula Competition, The Waikiki Hula Conference, and the World Invitational Hula Festival. Although the Merrie Monarch Festival has allowed halau hula from California, Chicago, and other places outside Hawai`i in past years, it still excludes “foreign” countries. As a result of that festival rule, hula competitions like the Japan Hula ‘Oni Ē Festival, have begun in Japan. Boasting “japanese hula” the dancers perform with sincerity and humility and hula takes on a new life in a new place.

To know Hawaii today is to know what it means to adopt culture. Honolulu itself is a melting pot of so many cultures that it is no wonder that the hula has been adopted by so many people from so many different backgrounds. You will find hula kumus throughout the world that may not be Hawaiian but grew up living Hawaii and now they spread their knowledge and aloha wherever life has taken them.   One example is June Yoshiko Kaililani Ryushin Tanoue, BS, MPH, Kumu Hula, Reverend, and Reiki Master.

Born in Laupahoehoe on the Hamakua (Breath of the Ancestors) Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, she was the first child of five for Robert Naoyuki and Margaret Mitsuko (Tahara) Tanoue. Fourth generation (yonsei), Japanese American on her mother’s side of the family, and third generation (sansei) on her father’s side, Kumu June now teaches hula in Chicago. Her path to get there started when she began hula at age 6. From hula to ukulele her love for dancing grew. Her first hula was “To you Sweetheart, Aloha”, then “Singing Bamboo”, followed by “Kealoha.” She learned 18 hulas over two years and went on to dance with Kumu Hula George Naope in 1971. After that she studied with Newton Ka’onohi Hitchcock from Kauai in Portland Oregon for a few years and then with Kumu Hula Michael Pili Pang back on the Big Island.

Kumu June currently resides in Chicago and teaches hula at Halau I Ka Pono, The Hula School of Chicago. She describes teaching hula as this: “Healing and Hula are two sides of the same coin. The patron goddess of Hula is Hi’iakaikapoliopele, the youngest sister of the fire goddess, Pele. It is Hi’iaka who makes the green plants to grow on the fresh lava flows that Pele has created. Hi’iaka is skilled in the arts of healing with herbs, chanting and massage as well as the hula which she learned from her best friend, the mortal woman Hopoe” (halauikapono.org). Chicago is that last place that you would think to look for instruction in hula but with teachers like Kumu June they have created a whole school dedicated to teaching hula and living aloha. The spirit of Hawaii reaches far and it seems even into the chilly mid-west of America’s mainland.

One of the main goals of this halau seems to be healing in general. They do a lot of outreach work and are constantly helping the kupuna in their community. Of course when you dance the hula in some place other than Hawaii it is always a goal of the halau to come to Hawaii to show what has been learned and accomplished. This particular “sixteen Halau i Ka Pono hula haumana (students) from NYC and Chicago prepared extensively and then traveled across land and sea to the Big Island of Hawaii to dance on the Volcano Pa Hula (hula mound) on April 4, 2010. It was a pilgrimage that only hula devotees can really understand…” (halauikapono.org).

Many halaus come to Hawaii to perform and connect with their brothers and sisters of hula. At the World Invitational Hula Festival people from all over the world gather. Participants have come from Spain, the Netherlands, France, Canada, Mexico, Columbia, Germany, Samos, Poland, India, Africa, Korea, the Philippines, Easter Island, Iran, New Zealand and the Mariana Islands. States that have participated include: Alaska, California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, New York, Rhode Island, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C., American Samoa (U.S. Territory) and Guam (U.S. Territory.) All seven of the inhabited Hawaiian islands have participated. The yearly festival describes its goal as being “To offer an opportunity for those away from Hawai`i to return and become "one" with halau from Hawai`i in the true feeling of 'ohana…” (worldhula.com).

To get a locals perspective on how hula outside of Hawaii is viewed local boy Kapena Clute, who started doing hula himself in high school answered when interviewed, where he thinks hula is headed in the future he said “There is so much knowledge of hula from so many different sources and people that it is not possible to know all of it. All people in hula are learning constantly including the teachers. Some choreography is changed by some people to tell the story a different way. There are some progressive halaus that are more modern but it is sometimes perceived as not real hula. It is the belief of an individual to decide though”.

So it seems that through and through hula is a way of living and thinking. It is not just a dance and although it is uniquely Hawaiian, it is meant to be spread with aloha. In today’s modern world you will find Hawaiian values being lived through hula. From Hawaii to Japan, from New Zealand to New York, to Chicago the world as a whole has embraced hula and no longer is it the dashboard toy mentality. The teachings of hula are more about living a life that is in balance with your surroundings. Hula is not about coconut bras and swinging hips.

The hula is a wonderful thing to watch whether it is traditional sacred meles meant for ali’i and ancient warriors, or the more modern, contemporary, fast-paced hula. Hula is even a more wonderful thing to learn, and the ultimate is of course being able to live hula. The history and legends of Hawaii will forever be known as long as hula lives on. It has become the responsibility not just of the Hawaiian people but the responsibility of everyone that lives hula to carry on the history and the culture of the Hawaiian people.

Through all of its struggles the hula lives on because people live hula. Bob Krauss once said “The Hawaiian hula has been, over the years, probably the best known and least understood of the fine arts of Hawaii. First the missionaries condemned it to hell fire. Then tin-pan alley turned it into a dance no self-respecting Hawaiian would perform. But the hula has survived these indignities to remain the heartbeat of Hawaii”. And Kumu Na’ope can be quoted as saying “The hula is Hawaii. The hula is the history of our country. The hula is a story itself if it’s done right. And the hula to me is the foundation of life. It teaches us how to live, how to be, it is the ability to create one’s inner feelings and no one else’s”.   With these outlooks hula will continue to be a way of life for many generations to come.





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