Hula is an ancient Hawaiian cultural practice. Today hula is often viewed as a dance art form by non-Hawaiians, but it has many layers of cultural significance. Learning more about the practice of hula culture will enhance your enjoyment when watching hula. And you may want to learn to dance hula.
A hula halau (community of practice or school) is led by a Kumu (teacher or elder with the knowledge). The students are the hanauma. It’s not like taking children to a hip hop class. The halau develops a commitment and relationship with one another. The Kumu Hula transmits knowledge to the students in an ancient structured way. The students learn hula culture by making leis and instruments along with learning the mele, chants and songs. Another lesson is to make their clothing by dyeing in ancient ways.
The two types of hula are kahiko (ancient) and auana (modern). Hula is danced by men or women. Kahiko is with done with mele that are chanted. Instruments are usually percussion, such as ipu, a large gourd that is pounded with the hand, or pahu, a wood drum with a sharkskin top, an important part of hula culture. Dancers wear leis of flowers, leaves or shells, kupe’e (wrist and ankle adornments), and haku (a head circlet). The clothing often emulates kapa cloth (tapa). A pa’u skirt is gathered at the waist and is calf length. Men sometimes wear malo, a traditional Hawaiian loin cloth.
- See the Hula Preservation Society for a list of more instruments: http://www.hulapreservation.org/implements.asp
Auana is done with mele that are sung. Instruments can be piano, guitar, or ukulele. You will see this done with bands, too. Dancers wear leis, flowers in their hair, or hats. Men often wear slacks, long sleeve shirt, and a wide sash. Women wear skirts with Victorian style blouses or dresses. Auana is the style you will see more often at a hotel or music venue. Often the songs are Hapa Haole (half foreign), which may be in English. They became very popular from 1890s through 1930s.
- See Hawaiian music and hula archives: http://www.huapala.org/
The big competition is Merrie Monarch, held in Hilo on the Big Island the week after Easter every year. This wonderful gathering in Hilo feels like the Super Bowl of Hawaii. The competition has been held since 1963 and is named for King David Kalakaua, who is credited with bringing back public hula performance. There is a lottery to get tickets. Your request for tickets must be postmarked December 1. There are many events all week such as parades, craft fair, concerts, and hō’ike (hula demonstration). The competitions include Miss Aloha Hula, men’s kahiko, men’s auana, women’s kahiko, and women’s auana. TV coverage in Hawaii is about 10 hours per day. You can watch online through the KFVE website or the Merrie Monarch YouTube channel.
- KFVE broadcasts the Merrie Monarch. Look for links here for video of the latest competition.
- Merrie Monarch Festival
There are hula competitions throughout the year:
- Kaua’i Mokihana Festival in September: https://www.maliefoundation.org/kaua-i-mokihana-festival
- Moloka’i Ka Hula Piko in June: http://www.kahulapiko.com/
- Prince Lot Hula Festival at Moanalua Gardens in July: http://moanaluagardensfoundation.org/
- Na Hula Festival in August: http://www.honolulu.gov/cms-dpr-menu/site-dpr-sitearticles/6465-na-hula-festival.html
I’m sharing with you my personal favorites, the dancers and kumus that I follow. If you talk with any fan of hula culture, you will get a different list!
- Kanoelehua Miller is Miss Hawaii 1973 and a gifted hula dancer. She performs at the Halekulani Hotel’s House Without a Key on Friday and Saturday evenings. http://www.squareone.org/Hapa/kanoe.html
- Robert Cazimero is a revered recording artist (with his brother Roland) and an early kumu hula for an all-male halau. A wonderful documentary about his work with his halau is “Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula.” http://merriemonarch.staradvertiser.com/qa-kumu-hula-robert-cazimeros-distinction-is-his-halaus-style/
- Chinky Mahoe is a kumu hula from Kailua on Oahu. His halau does fantastic performances at Merrie Monarch. https://www.alohaoutlet.com/Shops/108/en/KumuHulaChinkyMahoe/default.aspx
- Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu is the kumu of the famous Academy of Hawaiian Arts in Oakland, California. Grounded in traditional Hawaiian culture, Kumu Mark makes hula modern and alive. His halau’s performances at Merrie Monarch are huge crowd pleasers.
- The Kanaka’ole family has preserved cultural knowledge for generations on the Big Island. Edith Kanaka’ole was a very important foundation for the Merrie Monarch Festival. Her daughters Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele and Nalani Kanaka’ole are respected kumus. Her granddaughter Kekui Kanahele-Frias is an award winning singer and cultural practitioner. And her grandson Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole is a groundbreaking performer. https://www.edithkanakaolefoundation.org/
You can see hula just about any day in Hawaii. For example, on Oahu, there are regular hula performances at the Ala Moana shopping center, the hula mound near Prince Kuhio’s statue on Waikiki, and at the grove at the Royal Hawaiian center. As a tourist, there are many luaus to choose from which feature hula and Tahitian dance.
Resource links for hula culture
- Hula instruments from Huapala
- Princess Lei Lokelani and the Hawaiian cultural craze in 1915 from Images of Old Hawai’i
- Hula Preservation Society
- Ke Ao Hula keeps a wonderful image record of hula. Check out their Instagram!
- Hula Studio Magazine
A saying that really resonates with me: in hula you feel the earth and you are praying with your feet. I’m a beginner hula student and my kumu is Pattye Kealohalani Wright from Kailua. Kuma Kea has been teaching hula for many years. Luckily for me, she has a DVD series called Real Hula that helps me practice at home. It was a huge thrill for me to visit her studio in Kailua and get some expert coaching! http://www.realhula.com/