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Hula in Hawaii

"Hula is the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people." — King David Kalakaua

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Tropical Flowers

Tropical flowers in Hawaii.

Photo by Susan Breslow Sardone

By Susan Breslow Sardone

Hula, which began in Hawaii as a sacred ritual, has over time flourished into an art form.

Originally a type of worship in religious ceremonies, hula was performed to give thanks to Hawaii’s ancient gods and honor its chieftains. Later hula dances, chants, and songs moved from the temples into the secular world, their incantatory beauty entertaining and enlightening.

Accompanied only by voice or percussion instruments, male — and subsequently, female — hula dancers used their bodies to express the wondrous legends of the Hawaiian islands.

Every hula movement has a specific meaning. Different gestures symbolize flowers, animals, even conflict and war. With expressive hands and undulating hips, a hula dancer can evoke a palm frond in the breeze or the menace of a shark.

Traditional hula narratives tell a story. One recounts the islands’ emergence from the sea and the saga of goddess Pele, who restlessly searched each of the Hawaiian islands for a home until finally finding one within a Big Island volcano.

Westerners Encounter Hula in Hawaii

The first Westerners in Hawaii, Captain Cook and corps arrived in 1778. Expedition members noted a hula performed for them on Kauai — and it seemed the gentle art would continue to hold observers in its thrall.

It was not to be. Around 1820, missionaries sailed from New England to “save” Hawaii. Shocked and appalled by the dance they deemed "heathenish," these zealots dedicated themselves to eradicating the hula. Manipulating sympathizers among Christianized royalty, the missionaries succeeded in making the dance illegal.

Yet hula’s endurance was as tenacious as its rhythms. During this bleak period, which lasted more than fifty years, hula went underground. And far away from the Hawaiian islands’ missions, dancers continued to surreptitiously perform the sensual dances.

The Hula Ruler

If hula has a royal patron, it is King David Kalakaua (1874-91). Well-traveled and well-connected (President Grant entertained him in Washington), Kalakaua never forgot his Hawaii roots. Known as the Merrie Monarch for his love of song and dance, Kalakaua formed a palace hula troupe. His appreciation of the authentic art returned hula to its rightful place as a national treasure.

Kalakaua's support also helped hula evolve. Western forms of music were later integrated into some hulas. The steel guitar and the ukulele, a Portuguese import, were added to hula’s instrumental repertoire.

Hula Performances and Festivals

Since the 1970s interest in hula has been strong. Pageants, competitions, and foundations in Hawaii preserve this indigenous art form and nurture public appreciation with skilled performances.

Hula even has its own superstar: Maui’s Keali’i Reichel, a Hawaiian scholar, composer, and dynamic hula chanter appears throughout the U.S. and has opened concerts for Sting, Celine Dion, Bonnie Raitt, and others.

Visitors who attend the daily luau at Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center, a Mormon-sponsored amusement park, can see both hula kahiko (ancient) and hula auana (modern) hula dances during the all-you-can-eat Hawaiian buffet.

To watch Hawaii’s best hula performers, attend the Big Island’s Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. Known as the Olympics of Hula, the cultural festival honors the memory of Kalakaua and showcases both traditional and modern hula.

Hula at Your Hotel

Any time of year, vacationers can see hula at top hotels throughout the islands. Venues include:
  • At Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa on Oahu, elaborate Friday and Saturday night shows incorporate hula dancing.
  • The Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island features a nightly performance with two musicians and a dancer at Brown's Beach House restaurant. Hula lessons are available to guests for a fee.
  • Hula is performed every evening by one or two dancers at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa.
  • Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort & Spa holds a sunset torch lighting and keiki (kids’) hula show three times a week.
  • Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa features a nightly torch-lighting ceremony and luau, both accompanied by hula dancers. Free hula lessons are offered three times a week to guests, and there are Friday hula lessons for children in the Camp Hyatt program.
  • Sheraton Waikiki entertains visitors with a nightly Sunset Hula Show at their pool. Their presentation represents the chronology of the Hula of Hawaii from the past to the present.

Learn to Speak Hula

Ten hula terms to learn:
    halau hula — hula school
    hula aiha‘a — bent-kneed, vigorous hula evoking the goddess Pele
    hula auana — modern hula accompanied by lyrical singing, ukuleles, steel guitars, and other instruments
    hula haole — hula dances influenced by Western music
    hula noho — hula performed while seated
    hula kahiko — ancient, traditional hula dancing
    kumu hula — hula teacher
    kupea — anklets worn by male hula dancers
    mele — song accompanying hula
    oli — chant accompanying hula

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