The revival of the authentic hula is an impressive achievement in "applied ethnology." It reminds mainland Americans that history and culture don't have to be cheapened to become economically useful. The Bishop Museum and the state's Department of Education deserve special commendation here.
The hula has almost become a trademark of Hawaii, but miles of Hollywood celluloid have perhaps distorted the true picture of the dance and its meaning. Take the grass skirt, for example. Strictly speaking, such gear is for Samoan and Tahitian shake dances. The more mellifluous-looking hula should be danced with large ti leaves making the skirt.
In the beginning the hula was a sacred dance to honor gods and praise chiefs. It was performed by trained dancers. Women wore the short skirt or pa'u; men wore a tapa-cloth malo. Especially impressive was the ceremonial, pure-white pa'u. Whale-tooth or bone necklaces and bracelets added to the decor of the professional dancers. The hula school was called the halau. While they were being trained, the dancers lived in, under strict rules.
Since the hula repertoire included about two hundred separate dances, learning was no easy task. The hula teacher, called the kumu hula, taught chants and prayers as well as dances. Chants were sung on two notes only, to the accompaniment of rattles and drums. Songs (meles) had to or three notes and were delivered mainly by poets. Meles were handed down from father to son through the generations. Some songs were prayers; others were love songs.
Through them family history was kept alive. A bard might have a hundred meles on the tip of his tongue. Dancing usually accompanied the singing of meles. Due to missionary disapproval of those scantily clad, gently undulating hips, the hula went underground until King Kalakaua, the Merry Monarch, revived it. When he crowned himself Kalakaua Rex, some two hundred hulas were danced, a testimonial to the endurance of this submerged art form.
There are several instruments generally used in hula dancing. The pu ili is made of split bamboo and makes a rattling sound when one of a dancing pair strikes the other's pu ilis. Ili ili are small, smooth stones clicked together, two by two, by each dancer holding a pair in his hands. A hollow gourd that makes an eerie set of sounds when hit in syncopation against various parts of the body is called the ipu. Seed-filled gourds that make sounds much like those of Latin American maracas, are called uli uli. Nowadays feathers in the royal yellow and red are added to enhance the color of uli uli.
For understanding the storytelling part of hula, it is necessary to master its basic "vocabulary." Hand positions and gestures for waves, clouds, stars, flowers, and water are easy for even the newcomer to decipher. Others are not much harder: a rainbow is suggested by arching finger tips; rolling one hand over another brings to mind an image of the rolling surf.
To close a story, a hula dancer brings both hands forward palm down. To dance the hula correctly, you must learn to bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the floor as the body shifts back and forth in a pattern resembling a figure eight. If you really want to see some fancy hulaing, to to Kapiolani Park during the summer hula festival.
The old hula survived in two environments despite the displeasure of the missionaries. In remote districts the old people tried to keep their customs alive; that is why most of the surviving hulas come from Kauai, which has always been the most isolated island. Mrs. Pukui's collection of eight hundred ninety-three hulas was mostly from the Garden Island.
Every time there was a royal progress through a village, it was customary to create a hula for the event. This was as de rigueur as making a feast for the great visitors. Mrs. Pukui believes that thirty or forty of these dignified and serious hulas still survive. The other environment where the hula led a kind of underground existence was in the brothels, where it was souped up to the sailor's sense of the bawdy.
In the most finished type of hula, gestures were very slight: a lifted eyebrow meant assent; a wriggle of the nose, refusal. What Westerners would regard as lewd hulas were danced for a serious purpose: sexual excitation to bring children to the childless. Only married people took part in this dance, in which the kumu hula would touch a man and a woman who would then retire to the dark. They might remain together for several days or until it seemed likely that conception had taken place. Issue from such liaisons was ascribed to the husband's genealogy. This particular dance was called the ume, which means "attraction" or "coming together."
From A Guidebook to Hawaii/Dolphin, 1965, Authentic Hawaiiana, pp 30-32