Art of the hula

David Choo

An old saying about hula claims "the hands tell the story." But graceful fingers tell only part of the tale, according to kumu hula (dance master) Manu Boyd.

"The hands are important, but the words of the mele (chant) tell the real story," says Boyd. "Traditional hula is very verbal. We tell stories when we dance."

Hula, as old as the Hawaiian culture, was once shared by all of the people. They danced to mele that expounded on every aspect of life ― warfare, death, birth, sex, even surfing. But contact with the Western world changed hula. Considered lewd by American missionaries who arrived in Hawaii in 1820, hula nearly vanished in 1896, when the Hawaiian language was abolished from local schools.

The dance survived, however, and, thanks to Hollywood and a budding tourist industry, became the enduring emblem of the Islands during the 1920s and '30s. The more traditional forms have resurged since the late 1960s, when native Hawaiians began rediscovering their historical culture.

According to Boyd, 1893, the year the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown, marks the divergence of two styles of traditional hula still performed today. While the footwork of kahiko (ancient) and auana (modern and unrestricted) are almost identical, the themes of auana stories tend to be more lighthearted. Costumes and music are also different: Kahiko is danced to rhythms of the pahu (drum) and ipu (gourd); auana uses piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass.

The state's best dancers perform both styles of traditional hula at the following festivals.

Merrie Monarch Festival. The Super Bowl of hula, with the same glamour and drama. INFO: 808/935-9168.

• 34th Annual King Kamehameha Hula Competition. Brings more than 20 groups to dance. INFO: June 22-23; Neal S. Blaisdell Center Arena, Honolulu; 808/536-6540.

Video hula demonstration conducted by Hālau 'o Keikiali'i/APOP Hawaiian Cultural Center.

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Sunset April 2001