Long before statehood in 1959, the grass-skirted hula dancer, hips swaying, hands persuading, had emerged as the pop symbol of the Islands. Popularized by Hollywood, the ancient Hawaiian dance form was minimized and synthesized and brought to the Silver Screen by stars like Clara Bow, Shirley Temple, Dorothy Lamour and even Minnie Mouse.
Hollywood barely skimmed the surface. In its authentic form, hula is the most powerful expression of indigenous Hawaiian culture that exists.
The chants that give reason to the dance and the music are, in essence, the oral history of Hawaii’s native people. Passed down from one kumu hula (teacher) to another, the stories have survived Western contact, early missionary censure, U.S. takeover and statehood. King David Kalakaua, who came to the throne in 1874, is credited with reviving the hula after it had been declared illegal at the insistence of Christian missionaries. But it was not until the 1970s and the beginning of the Hawaiian renaissance that hula in all its forms seriously exploded in the islands.
Hula is divided into two general categories: Kahiko (ancient) and Auana (contemporary). Hula Kahiko is typically performed with percussion instruments, sticks and some wind instruments. Hula Auana is usually performed with ukuleles, acoustic and steel guitars and bass.
The Big Island is home to the prestigious Merrie Monarch Festival, which is held every year in Hilo and showcases the best hula dancers in the world. The festival, which attracts a huge following from throughout the islands, always begins on Easter Sunday.
It has been staged every year since 1964 at the Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium in Hilo. The world’s premiere hula competition, tickets are hard to come by, but the event is televised making it possible for thousands to view highly accomplished dancers performing both ancient and modern hula. Next year’s festival takes place in mid-April.
The festival is named in honor of King David Kalakaua, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands. Because of his love of dance and music, Kalakaua was nicknamed, “the Merrie Monarch.” At his coronation, in 1883, hula was danced in public, ending sanctions imposed by missionaries.
Since the reign of Kalakaua, hula has regained its role as a respected art form, with dancers devoting years to developing their discipline and style. The Merrie Monarch Festival has played a significant role in preserving the integrity of the chants and dance that make hula a centerpiece of Hawaiian culture.
In Hawaii, there is no shortage of hula dancers. Hula halaus (schools) attract dancers from both genders and all ethnic backgrounds. For the serious dancer, the training is rigorous and demands a long and intense commitment not at all a reflection of Hollywood’s cellophane picture.
Watch for free hula shows at shopping centers and resorts around the island.