Hula—The Dance of Hawaii
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN HAWAII
MENTION Hawaii, and often the hula comes to mind. Although the hula is uniquely associated with Hawaii, its origins are in the South Pacific.
In ancient times Hawaiians had no written language, so songs and chants were used to relate their history and customs. The hula, with movements of the hips, hands, and feet, along with facial expressions, accompanied these chants and songs.
There is no way to document anything associated with the hula before 1778, when Captain Cook and his men arrived. What is known today is largely based on late 19th-century practices, songs, and chants.
The first hulas may have been sacred rituals. Yet it is not thought that all hulas were acts of worship or part of a religious service.
Influence of Missionaries
The hula was being performed for explorers and sailors on visiting ships in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is possible that these paying customers wanted the hulas to be sexually explicit.
When the missionaries arrived in 1820, they had strong reason to condemn the hula. After securing the approval of the chiefs, the missionaries attacked the hula as heathen and vulgar—and the work of the Devil. Even before this, in 1819, changes in the ancient religious practices were brought on by Queen Regent Kaahumanu, widow of King Kamehameha I. These included the tearing down of idols and the elimination of complicated rituals. Countless dances and chants were also lost forever.
Kaahumanu was accepted into the church in 1825. In 1830 she issued an edict forbidding public performances of the hula. After her death in 1832, some chiefs ignored the edict. For a couple of years, when moral constraints were openly flouted by young King Kamehameha III and his companions, the hula briefly became popular again. But in 1835 the king conceded that his ways were wrong, and the kingdom returned to the power of the Calvinists.
Revival of the Hula
During King Kalakaua’s reign (1874-91), a resurgence occurred with full reacceptance of the hula at public performances. For his coronation in 1883, months of training and excitement culminated in the public performance of many chants and hulas, some especially written for that occasion. By the time of his death in 1891, the hula had gone through many changes in steps and body movements, and accompaniment by instruments like the ukulele, the guitar, and the violin had been introduced.
After the end of the monarchy in 1893, the hula again declined. By the mid-20th century, however, it was flourishing. To appeal to a more diverse audience, numerous innovations were made. Since many could not understand the Hawaiian language, English words were used. The modern hula places more emphasis on the dance itself—the movements of the hands and the feet, the swaying of the hips, and the expression of the face.
As the number of visitors to the islands increased, the hula became more and more popular. Travelers from the mainland took back with them the dances that they learned and began featuring them in Hollywood films with non-Hawaiian dancers. In 1935 even Minnie Mouse danced the hula for Mickey, who played his steel guitar.
The Hula Today
With the “Hawaiian Renaissance” in the 1970’s, the knowledge of a few chanters, dancers, and master teachers became the basis for revitalizing older hula forms. Today there are hula masters who reproduce the old dances and those who create new ones. In either case, their attempts have resulted in extravagant and spectacular displays.
A spiritual affinity with the many Hawaiian gods has carried over to a degree into modern times. Each year before the start of the Merrie Monarch Festival held in Hilo, Hawaii, hula schools make their pilgrimage to Pele’s fire pit or sites of recent lava flows. They chant, dance, and make offerings of flowers, berries, and gin, asking for her blessings on their efforts for the contest. Groups from around the world compete in three nights of competition viewed as the Olympics of hula.
The hula has become a large part of the cultural rebirth in Hawaii. It includes the somber dances accompanying chants with reverence to gods and goddesses as well as the simple expressions of everyday life in the islands that have no religious significance at all.
Christians should be very selective in dancing or in viewing certain hulas. They need to be sure that they are not unknowingly paying homage to a god or a goddess. Care also needs to be exercised when listening to or singing songs or chants. Many of these contain words with hidden or double meanings. If this is kept in mind, a viewer or a participant can enjoy the hula as a wholesome form of entertainment.