The traditional Hawaiian dance, the hula, is known the world over. It is exotic and mysterious, simple and complex. But mostly, it is a beautiful and spellbinding thing to watch.
Today, there are many different types of hula, but the 2 main ones are kahiko (ancient) and auana (modern).
Hula kahiko was danced in ancient times primarily in dedication to the gods and was, thus, considered a religious performance. Hula schools (halau) were serious institutions and taught strictly, leaving no room for error given the sacred nature of the dance.
Hula kahiko was performed to only one percussive instrument, the pahu, a sharkskin covered drum. Accompanying the dancers and dictating their movements was mele. Mele are chants of poetry depicting Hawaiian history and its legends. These have been very strictly memorized from generation to generation in order that the stories are passed down with historical accuracy.
The dance consists of hand and arm movements that interpret the text of the mele, and foot movements which coincide with changes or pauses in the text.
The traditional dress of hula kahiko consisted of only a wrap skirt for women and a loin cloth for men, as well as leis around the neck and jewelry, (or leis), around the head, wrists and ankles.
The arrival of the missionaries and their puritanical views led to the public banning of the hula in the early 1800ís due to its seemingly explicit and heathen nature. This lasted for 50 years, yet the halau continued to operate in secrecy.
Fortunately, the monarch King Kalakaua, who ruled 1874-1891, disagreed strongly with this ban. He felt that the hula was integral to Hawaiian history, culture and identity. King Kalakaua invited dancers to practice and perform in his court and by 1883 he allowed a public performance to be held, thereby doing away with the ban for good.
Around the 1900ís the hula began to change due to western influences. The old and the new styles of dance, costume and music were merged and the hula auana was born. Hula auana is probably what most of us have in mind when envisioning the hula. The dress is more modest and the mele is sung as opposed to being chanted. The context is less religious, can depict more recent history and stringed instruments such as the ukulele and guitar often accompany the dancers. In short, this modern hula is more light and fun, while still historically significant in context.
In order to make it even more friendly to visitors, English word song was also added to the dance, enabling visitors to understand the words that the hands and arms were so beautifully depicting.
Today, there are many hulau offering hula lessons in every style. The ancient dance is being kept alive and is embraced by locals and visitors to Hawaii alike. Laka, the goddess of the hula, is surely pleased.