A Brief History of the Hula

People often associate hula with men and women in short grass skirts, rapidly gyrating their hips and twirling fire. Unfortunately, that’s not hula dancing. That’s a Polynesian form of dance, popular at luaus. No, hula, authentic hula, is a slower, soulful dance, primarily performed by women in full, formal dress. It is common to see men dancing the hula, as well, but generally it is a dance dominated by women.

The origins of the hula are murky, at best. The first point of question is where the first hula was performed. The Big Island, Oahu, Kauai and Molokai all claim to be the birthplace of hula. The next issue is who first performed it. Some say Hopoe, a companion of the goddess Hi’iaka, was the first dancer. Others believe it was Kapo’ulakina’u (Kapo), the goddess of fertility who first danced the hula. Finally, a third myth says the first hula dancer was the navigator goddess Laka.

Even though the first hula dancer or even where the first hula took place can’t be verified, what’s interesting to historians is that these three myths revolve around goddesses. This directly refutes claims that in ancient times, hulas were only performed by men. This claim is further refuted when in 1778, Captain Cook landed on the island now known as Kauai and his crew members wrote about hula dances being performed by both men and women.

Between 1819 (marked by the death of Kamehameha I) and 1874, many Christian Hawaiians considered the hula immoral. So much so that in 1830, Queen Ka’ahumanu, a Christian convert, made it illegal to perform the hula in public places. Upon her death in 1832, many began ignoring the law and again performed in public. In 1874, Kalakaua became king, and during his reign the hula again became officially public. It was performed at both his 1883 coronation and an 1886 jubilee celebration.

In 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy fell. It would be nearly 100 years before the hula again became a part of the government celebrations.

Today, there are two primary forms of Hula. The first, hula kahiko, often referred to as traditional hula, is generally performed in the style used prior to 1894. Much of this form of hula was created in the praise of chiefs and honoring Hawaiian goddesses and/or gods. Hula kahiko does not use modern instruments like the ukulele or guitar. Instead, it uses things like rhythm sticks, gourds carved into drums and rattles, or bamboo sticks cut so they slap together.

The second form of hula performed today is called hula’auana, which combines the traditional form of hula with western influences like melodic harmonies and Christian morality tales. String instruments like the ukulele, steel guitars and bass guitars are often used to accompany the performers.

You can see hulas performed all over the state, from resorts and shopping malls to luaus and public gatherings. See if you can spot the difference between traditional hulas and the modern form.