Hula: The Language And History Of Hawaii

Ancient Hawaiians did not have much of a written language. Petroglyphs don’t really count. Hawaii’s history was recorded as dance. Hula dancers were expected to remember and repeat every dance step perfectly and under punishment of death. To change the dance was to change history.

Language, particularly the written form, translates our thoughts to others. In historical form, a culture’s values, beliefs, history, romances, and genealogies are transmitted via the written word.

Hula became the written word for ancient Hawaiians. In the feet, hands, and body movements of Hula dancers, stories were told. Genealogies were kept. Beliefs were shared and imposed. Hula dancers could not change the steps as the message would be changed. So would history.

Hula in Hawaii

Hula is easily the most famous cultural expression of Hawaii. Missionaries were shocked by the sensual nature of Hula. The drums. The beats. The chants. The hips swaying to a primal rhythm.

Whew. Is it just me or is it hot in here?

What did the missionaries think? Words such as “abomination” and “licentiousness” come to mind. People change. Thanks in part to Hollywood,  and especially Hawaiians who refused to “forget” their languagae, Hula is big business and is experiencing a new period of growth and popularity.

Hula has changed.

The dance of today is a radical departure from centuries past. Today, Hula can be divided into two basic categories.

Hula Kahiko – the oldest form.

Hula Auana – Which evolved after Western influence in the 1800s.

The oldest form, Hula kahiko is primal in spirit with heavy emphasis on drums, chanting, and simple skirt of grass or cotton and a loose top.

Music dominates Hula auana with guitars and ukelele joining the ancient instruments. Dancers smile (they seem more to grunt and scowl in the ancient form) and use specific hand gestures to communicate a message.

Guess what?

You can’t take Hula lessons.

Not really, anyway. True students of Hula join a “halau” which is a group of students presided over by a “kumu hula”, or, master teacher.

Hula today carries a special place in the culture of modern Hawaii. Hula is everywhere in Hawaiian entertainment; singers and dancers alike. Hula opens the state legislature every session.

Legislative action goes down hill from there.