The hula has been a part of the Hawaiian culture for so long now that it might be surprising that it’s still right at the heart of celebration on the islands – but there it is, where it’s been for centuries. As with other ancient art forms, there are several stories about the origin of the hula. Some Hawaiians believe that Hopoe, who was worshipped as a companion of goddess Hi’iaka, was the first to perform this traditional dance, while other legends say that goddess Kapo, the deity of fertility, was the first to dance the hula. Another story tells us that it was a Polynesian woman named La’ila’i who brought the hula to Hawaii in the sixth century. La’ila’i is believed to have passed on the art to five generations of her family. Legend has it that Laka, a woman who belonged to the said fifth generation, set out on a voyage around 1100 A.D. to teach the history of the hula to members of other islands.
It’s a part of the islands – part of the sea and the sky and the shared heritage of Hawaii. However the art of hula spread to all the islands in the Hawaiian state, one thing is certain. Hawaiian culture holds that it is a dance form the gods passed on to humans, and Hawaiians hold the art in high regard.
Early Hawaiian performances of the hula revolved around stories of their ancestors, tales of wars and love, and themes about the origin of the dance. Between the late 1810s and the 1870s, when several foreigners had settled in Hawaii amidst the locals, the hula began to be considered immoral, and in 1830, Queen Ka’ahumanu banned the hula from being performed in public spaces. But when she died a couple of years later, the locals slowly began to refute the law and brought the hula back out in the open again. In 1874, King Kalakaua made the hula officially public once more. In fact, he was such an ardent patron of the dance that it found a place in his coronation ceremony in 1883, and in his jubilee celebration in 1886. Unfortunately, in 1893, when the monarchy fell, the hula once again lost its prominence – this time for almost a century before it was eventually made part of official celebrations again.
The hula in the past and the present
Hawaiian culture is built on a beautiful and unique mix of the old and the new, and thisis why there are two prominent forms of the hula today. One is the traditional form of the dance, infused with the same styles that marked it before 1893. The central themes in this form include tales praising chiefs and honoring gods and goddesses. Also known as hula kahiko, this style uses old-fashioned instruments like carved gourds that double up as drums, rhythm sticks, and bamboo stalks that are slapped together to keep the beat. This style is also slower and more soulful, and is performed in the formal dress for Hawaiian dance.
The other style is called hula’auana and combines elements of the traditional dance with modern western elements like the guitar, the ukulele, and themes revolving around Christian tales of morality. Both are rich reflections of Hawaii’s past, and point Hawaiians and everyone who dances them towards Hawaii’s future, filled with wonder and celebration and mystery. Irrespective of the style of the hula, there’s no denying that the history of the hula dance captures the heart and soul of Hawaiian culture.