A hula halau dressed in red perform a dance at the crater's rim.

Traditional Hula is a far cry from shows aimed at tourists. These dancers perform a dedication to Volcano Goddess Pele. Photo © Alan L., licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The hula is more than an ethnic dance; it is the soul of Hawaii expressed in motion. It began as a form of worship during religious ceremonies and was danced only by highly trained men. It gradually evolved into a form of entertainment, but in no regard was it sexual. It was history portrayed in the performing arts.

In the beginning an androgynous deity named Laka descended to earth and taught men how to dance the hula.In the beginning an androgynous deity named Laka descended to earth and taught men how to dance the hula. In time the male aspect of Laka departed for the heavens, but the female aspect remained. The female Laka set up her own special hula heiau at Ha‘ena on the Na Pali coast of Kaua‘i, where it still exists. As time went on women were allowed to learn the hula. Scholars surmise that men became too busy wresting a living from the land to maintain the art form.

Men did retain one type of hula for themselves called lua. This was a form of martial art employed in hand-to-hand combat that evolved into a ritualized warfare dance called hula ku‘i. During the 19th century, the hula almost vanished because the missionaries considered it vile and heathen. King Kalakaua saved it during the late 1800s, when he formed his own troupe and encouraged the dancers to learn the old hula. Many of the original dances had been forgotten, but some were retained and are performed to this day.

Today, hula halau (schools) are active on every island, teaching hula and keeping the old ways and culture alive. Hula combines the chanting of the mele (story) and is accompanied by traditional instruments like the ipu (gourd). Performers spend years perfecting their techniques telling stories through dance. They show off their accomplishments during the fierce competition of the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo every April. The winning halau is praised and recognized throughout the islands.

Almost every major resort offering entertainment or a luau also offers a hula revue. Most times, young island beauties accompanied by proficient local musicians put on a floor show for the tourists. It’s entertaining, but it’s not traditional hula.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.