History of the Hawaiian Hula Dance

May 18, 2008 by  
Filed under Featured, Hawaii Culture |

Hula dance is a form of storytelling, expression, religious practice, and art that stretches back to ancient times.

Ancient Times – Hula Kahiko

The ancient origins of hula dance are shrouded in mystery and mythology. In a pre-literate society, an oral history was preserved through this music and dance, and it was used as a form of prayer. Often it was also used as amusement, celebration, and performance. The traditional musical instruments were gourds, drums, rattles and sticks, many made from gourds. Songs or ritualized chants tell stories of history, mythology, and morality, across all phases of life and the range of human emotion. There were many different “types” of hula, such as the Dance for the Chief, the Dance with Bamboo Pipes, the Dance as an Image, and others.

Monarchy – Hula ‘auana

During the monarchy period from 1810 through 1898, hula was derided by foreign Calvinist missionaries as a lewd and pagan practice. King Kamehameha II banned the art at the missionaries’ request, but enforced the ban only halfheartedly and continued to personally support it. Outside influence on the dance forms changed them drastically. The costumes changed as well, from merely to traditional bark-cloth skirts and leis to including tops and less revealing cloth skirts. European musical forms and harmonies were introduced.

Late Monarchy and Republic – Hula Ku’i

As the monarchy began to more openly support hula, a new form emerged. This combined poetry with chanting, dance, and a more limited selection of musical instruments. In particular, the ipu gourd-drum was prevalent. Religion remained a strong component of the dance.

Twentieth Century – Hula ‘auana / ku’i

Hula came to the world’s attention on the silver screen. Growing external influence combined many hula movements with other types of dance movements, solidifying this fusion as its own style. The dance’s sensual elements were emphasized and its vocabulary limited to those movements that looked compelling on film and in tourist performances, rather than those that carried meaning. Melodic music, as opposed to traditional drumming and chanting, rose in prominence. Hula became largely secularized, though a few traditional practitioners kept the older knowledge alive.

A resurgence of interest in the ancient hula forms has produced a tremendous respect for the Hawaiian dance community elders. The Hula Preservation Society has dedicated thousands of hours to filming and recording the songs and dances of elderly practitioners. These hula masters learned the dances from their grandparents, preserving the monarchy-era dances in living memory. These newly discovered and re-created ancient dances, called ai kahiko, are modern attempts to return the hula to its more spiritual roots and to preserve the oral histories they expressed.

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