Hula Is A Celebration of Life
Aloha. Surfing and luau. Ukulele and slack key guitar. These things have come to define Hawaii. The same is true of hula.
Hula is a uniquely Hawaiian dance performed with oli (chant) and mele (song) to convey the many stories and traditions of the Hawaiian people. These stories might be light-hearted. They might be sensual. They may evoke a spiritual or worshipful essence. They may be told with breakneck speed or at a hypnotic pace.
King David Kalakaua, credited with reviving hula in the late 19th century said, “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”
But that heartbeat almost died out in the mid 19th century with the arrival of Christian missionaries.
“When they saw the hula being performed, they thought that what we were doing gave off the wrong kind of influence that they saw as being sinful,” says Blaine Kamalani Kia, a teacher of hula and president of Ka Laua’e Foundation. “We didn’t see it as distasteful. We saw it as a way of celebrating life. So we ended up practicing the hula in hideaways and caves.”
But, then, in 1883, at King David Kalakaua’s coronation, the king embraced hula during the two weeks of royal celebration.
In the book Unfamiliar Fishes, author Sarah Vowell quotes John-Mario Sevilla from Maui, as saying, “When he placed the hula at the center of his coronation, Kalakaua made a significant gesture to the past, which is where Hawaiians traditionally looked for truth and meaning, in the face of rapid contemporary change. By challenging the foreign shame of the hula, he popularized and, therefore, politicized it. It’s as if he decided to write and publish books after all the libraries had been burned. Like surfing, he recognized that hula was organically, soulfully, metaphysically, irrepressibly Hawaiian. Because of him, today we have some of the earliest documentation of much of the hula kahiko, the ancient canon.”
The dances created a stir, though, and one missionary descendant wanted the printer who published the coronation program to be arrested for obscenity. Another felt, according to Vowell’s book, “that the hula performances spoke to the king’s ‘inherent filth of mind and utter lack of decency and moral sense.’”
Maybe it was simply a classic case of misunderstanding, because, for Kia, hula is sacred. Hula is the highest form of respect. Kia says, “For us hula is life, because we can learn everything about life--everything about morals, everything about ethics, everything about our daily life, everything about how we should live--through hula.”
In an oral tradition, hula served as the textbook for life. But it also took a more poetic, less didactic turn. Whether to serve as mnemonic memory devices or make the telling more interesting, the direct meanings that were intended to be conveyed in hula were cloaked in metaphors, illusions and personifications. And those tropes often turned to nature—water, rain, mud, ferns and more.
There was a higher message about the environment being shared here, as well. That being, “the human body is insignificant to everything around us,” says Kia. “Everything around us in our natural resources was here before man. That’s something we always have to be mindful of—to always be aware of your surroundings, to always observe nature. All of our lessons in how we’re supposed to live as human beings can be taught to us if we only look at nature more often.”
Those practicing hula today do not perform it lightly. It is not just a dance to be performed.
“When the visitors see the hula, they say, wow, so beautiful, but in reality the hula is not just stand up and dance,” says Leimomi Ho, another teacher of hula. “You don’t come to hula to just be a robot. It’s not wind you up and dance. Hula is something that’s in your heart. So, you need to have love for what you’re doing, for what you’re trying to express, for what you’re trying to bring across. You need to feel what you’re doing and enjoy every moment.”
Kia provides another way of looking at the role of a hula dancer. “When students get on stage, their job is not to perform for their family or their friends. It’s for their family and friends to take witness and give testimony to the students’ good deeds and tasks as a hula dancer.”
One thing has not changed from the early days of hula—long before the missionaries arrived—and that’s the tradition of the teacher-student relationship. The future of hula relies on kumu hula—hula teachers—like Kia and Ho. “The responsibility of a kumu is to carry on the hula traditions,” says Ho. “This is probably one of the most hard working generations now, the generation that I am in. That’s why I love being where I am right now because there are many of us out there teaching now.”