Hula represents a rich tapestry of Hawaii’s past, with tales of war, love and chiefs, and themes that trace back to the first Hawaiians residing in these islands. The chants, dance moves and music that comprise hula are a way of keeping these stories alive as well as honoring the gods and goddesses of Hawaii.
In ancient times, no written language existed in the Islands, so hula became an important form of storytelling. Every hand gesture, footstep and sway of the hips represented an important part of telling a story.
Originally, the dance was performed for sacred occasions to honor the gods. It was an important way to celebrate the gods and show appreciation for them.
Today, hula is still celebrated in Hawaii and performed at ceremonies. It has become more popular due to its connection with Hawaii’s history, as well as its ability to connect people from all over the world.
The traditional style of hula is known as hula kahiko, or ancient hula. This style combines chanting and instruments like drums and gourds to tell stories about Hawaii’s history, culture and traditions. It is slower and more soulful than the more modern hula auana styles.
Classic hula Kahiko is a more traditional style of dancing, influenced by the early Hawaiians who practiced the dance for centuries. The hula kahiko dancer uses carved gourds, drums and rhythm sticks to play along with the chanting and dancing.
In ancient times, hula was a way to connect the Hawaiians with their land and their gods, bringing them into harmony with the natural elements of the planet. The dancers adorned themselves with the fragrant leaves of maile, a plant that symbolized the divine forces in the earth. The dancers also gathered the leaves to be used in their hula.
It was not uncommon to perform a hula kahiko ain front of a chief, as a way of saying mahalo for a favor. The hula also was an important means of communicating with the gods,through the dancers’ body movements.
One of the earliest types of hula was the mele, or dances based on stories of warriors and their exploits. This type of dance was akin to the western theater, where actors could use characterization and visualization to help bring the story to life.
Some mele were accompanied by ipu, or gourd drums, and were performed on special occasions. Other mele were recited at home as a way to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, and some were just for fun.
During the nineteenth century, hula was considered an immoral dance because it was viewed as demeaning and sexualized. Queen Ka’ahumanu, a Christian convert, banned it from being performed in public places between 1819 and 1874. However, when she died, her successor King Kalakaua made it legal again.
It is interesting to note that the hula is also performed by men. Robert Cazimero established Halau Na Kamalei, the only halau that is devoted exclusively to male hula, and they have been performing around the world for 35 years. The men of Na Kamalei have blazed the path and brought back the masculine side of the ancient Hawaiian dance, dispelling the stereotypes that were once a part of this art form.
Today hula kahiko is celebrated in the bronze figurines of Kim Taylor Reece, available in all Martin & MacArthur galleries. www.martinandmacarthur.com.