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On its surface, hula is the storytelling dance of the island of Hawaii. As with all of Hawaiian culture, when you are fortunate enough to learn more about it, much deeper, more powerful and empowering truths may be revealed. Hula can be paired with chants or contemporary music, slow and sentimental in tempo or fast and energetic. But no matter its style, it is all part of a cultural practice of sharing a trove of stories that connect dancers and audiences to the foundation of Hawaiian ancestral knowledge. Hula animates history, genealogy, prophecy, and the tales of those who came before.
For dancers who connect more deeply through their hula traditions, dance is just one part of the practice, which often involves stewardship of the environment. For example, there may be a reciprocal relationship where dancers care for the forests, which in turn provide for them, including ferns, maile and other materials to make lei and adornments add significance to the performance. Practices differ from halau (hula school) to halau, but they all aim to create a tangible, personal connection between the dancer, the stories he or she is dancing about, and the legendary origins of hula itself.
"Aohe pau ka ike i ka halau hookahi. No one school contains the totality of all knowledge. A proverb that encourages respect of differing traditions, in hula and otherwise. "
Two overarching styles of hula are hula kahiko (traditional hula) and hula auana (modern hula). To simply categorize the two as old and new, however, minimizes the differences between the two and overlooks important distinctions.
Hula kahiko is traditionally performed as part of or as an extension of a ceremony, set to an oli (chant) and accompanied by percussion instruments. While many of the oli we hear along with hula kahiko are compositions from generations ago, there are also new oli and accompanying hula composed today. To call hula “ancient” improperly implies that the art is static. Rather, hula kahiko has strong roots in the past and continues to grow in modern Hawaii.
Hula auana is less formal hula, performed without ceremony. Around the turn of the 20th century, more new hula began to emerge in this less formal style. A story is told with the accompaniment of song and stringed instruments such as guitar, bass, steel guitar and ukulele.
If you happen upon a hula performance as part of a ceremony, note that it may not be intended as a public performance. You may be asked to keep a respectful distance, be silent, refrain from taking photos or video, or follow some other request to maintain the sanctity of the ceremony. Even if you are not asked to do so, it is appropriate to maintain a respectful distance.
Where Can I See Hula on the Island of Hawaii?
Considered by many to be the pinnacle of the hula world, the Merrie Monarch Festival happens in Hilo on the island of Hawaii the week following Easter every year. Tickets for the hula competition are hard to come by, but many performances can be found around Hilo town along with artisan fairs, fashion, music and more.
Other events with hula front and center include: The Hula Arts at Kilauea Series, (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park) Iolani Luahine Hula Festival and Hula Scholarship Competition (January/February, Kailua-Kona), Queen Liliuokalani Festival (September, Hilo), and the Moku o Keawe International Festival (November, Kohala Coast).
You can also see live performances at historic sites like Hulihee Palace and the Island of Hawaii’s hotels and resorts. While serious study of hula is undertaken in a halau hula under the tutelage of a kumu hula, more casual lessons are often offered at select island of Hawaii hotels and resorts. A luau is another fun and festive place to watch hula and learn about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture.