Polynesian Dance: Hula of the Hawaiian Island

Whenever we think of the gorgeous beaches, mouth-watering cuisine, exotic dances, and extraordinary folk music, the images of the Hawaiian Islands immediately pop up in our heads. The Hawaiian Islands, because of their rich cultural heritage and breathtaking sceneries, has been one of the most popular tourist destinations for people from all age groups. Some tourists even go to the extent of saying that the place creates the memory of a lifetime because of the variety of fun experiences it has to offer. However, among this long list of fascinating offerings from these islands, the activity that captured my attention the most is the beautiful Polynesian dance, which gained popularity from Hawaii down to Tahiti and has been imbibed by various cultures for ages. The dance captures the movement of the whole body, from head to toe. These movements make the Polynesian dance both captivating and sensuous. According to Kaina Quenga, a dance teacher of Tahitian and Hawaiian dance forms in New York City, “to feel the spirit of Polynesian dance is beyond words. It is more than an art form. It is a way of being.” Polynesian dance typically narrates the legends and stories of different Polynesian tribes and their gods. Each Polynesian culture has its signature dance form: Maori, Fijian, Samoan, Tongan, and Hula.

Among these Polynesian dance forms, the Hula of the Hawaiian Islands is the most renowned and is often accompanied by Oli, which is essentially a particular type of song or chant based on the tales related to the legends, myths, rituals, battles, and deep-rooted, ancient practices. The lyrics of the Oli songs are usually expressed with the help of different dance moves by the Hula dancer while performing, which almost looks like a dance drama. Traditionally, mistakes are not permitted while performing these dances as the errors are seen as bad omen. Therefore, a new dancer is always moved under the protection of goddess Laka so the goddess can protect the performer from any mishap. While the Hula dance form seems extraordinarily fluid and easy to perform, in reality, it takes much understanding of the Oli chants, along with severe practice and passion, to perfect its moves.

Hula dance has been performed as a ritual by Hawaiians since ancient times. Originally, Hula and Oli were ways for Hawaiians to pass on their cultural legacy to the next generations, as they did not have a script of their own to write down and record their history. When the European explorers first arrived in Hawaii in 1778, they noticed Hawaiian men and women performing the Hula dance. The dance, however, took a severe beating between 1820 and 1874. In 1820, when American Protestant missionaries first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, they saw the dance form as pagan. And under their influence, Queen Ka’ahumanu, in the year 1830, banned all the public performances of Hula. The dance form, which was by then only performed in secret, once again revived under the reign of King David Kalākaua between 1874 and 1891.

Hula dance form essentially has two styles, “Hula Kahiko,” which is the ancient Hula, and “Hula Auana,” which is the modern form.

Hula Kahiko

 Hula Kahiko is a collection of Hula performances composed before 1894 and made no use of modern instruments like the guitar and Ukulele. The Oli songs sung while performing this form is usually to honor the village chiefs, gods, and goddesses. Besides Oli chants, ancient proverbs are also sung as it is believed that these sayings contain Mana which is the power derived from the spiritual sources. Oli chants in Hula Kahiko are further categorized based on their context, for instance, Mele Pule (chants that are mostly prayers to the Gods), Ma’i (chants related to procreation), Hula Kuahu (chants related with a ritual dance), Hanau (chants associated with birth), Ho’oipoipo (chants related to love), and several others.

Instruments and Costumes of Hula Kahiko

During ancient times the musical instruments used in Hula Kahiko were Uli-Uli (feathered gourd rattles), Pahu (drum covered in sharkskin), Ipu (single gourd drum), and Kala’au (rhythm sticks). The female dancers, while performing, usually wore wraparound known as Pa’u, which was further beautified by wearing a skirt made out of green leaves over it called Ki. For the upper body, the female dancers sometimes wore a bra made out of coconut shells. However, this was not essential, and in most cases, the women would go topless. They would further wear necklaces, anklets, bracelets, and Lei, essentially garlands and headpieces, to accessorize their overall costumes.  The male performers would wear a loincloth and similar floral ornaments as the women. The floral headdress and the garlands known as Lei were not carried after the performance and were left at the Shrine’s altar of Goddess Laka itself.

Hula Auana

This modern form of Hula, despite being heavily influenced by western concepts, still narrates the stories, which include events from the 1800s. The songs used while performing this form are usually sung like pop music with one lead singer and several other singers singing as the chorus. Unlike traditional Oli chants, these songs are homages to significant people, events, and also places.

Instruments and Costumes of Hula Auana

The musical instruments used in this modern Hula version are Ukelele, Uli-Uli rattles, and acoustic guitars.  In the present time, women wear skirts or dresses while performing. The colors of the attire and the ornaments are chosen according to the theme of the song. The men either wear long or short pants or skirts made with a loincloth.

Hula is just one of the many Polynesian dances. Every Polynesian country has its unique traditional dance form, which over the centuries has helped the residents to pass down the stories of the yore and native mythology to future generations. Since the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the occupation of Hawaii by the American government and corporations, the island witnessed a critical decline of its native language and culture. It was not until the late 20th century, when Hawaii was first marketed as a holiday destination and tourists started pouring in, did the Hula regain its popularity. Hula, therefore, is not just a dance form but is also an effective instrument in solidifying the Hawaiian identity by retelling the lost Hawaiian legends and the island’s glorious history.

About writer: Atule Ojonimi Precious is a law student who gains pleasure from reading books and writing. She has authored a book with a co-writer and owns a blog too. Apart from reading and writing, she also enjoys activity such as playing badminton. She is very social and likes to meet new people.

Editors: Rachana Gupta and Aditya Mohan

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