Hawaiian Culture - Hula kahiko

Hula dancing has been a part of the Hawaiian culture since ancient times. Yet even Hawaiians themselves are not exactly sure about the history of hula. In fact, the peoples of the Big Island, Kauai, Oahu, and Molokai all claim that their Island was the birthplace of the traditional hula. Nonetheless, all Hawaiians believe that the hula was a gift from the gods to the Hawaiian people.

The original form of Hula is the style that was generally performed before 1894 and it is called Hula kahiko (Traditional Hula). It is accompanied by chant (oli) and traditional instruments. The Hula kahiko does not use modern instruments like the ukulele or guitar which is used for the Hula auana (Modern Hula). Instead, it uses instruments like rhythm sticks, gourds carved into drums and rattles, or bamboo sticks.

Many hula were created to praise the chiefs and to honor the Hawaiian goddesses and/or gods. The types of hula kahiko include ʻālaʻapapa, haʻa, ʻolapa, and many others.

Regardless, the hula dance had existed for thousands of years in a variety of forms. Sadly, however, it almost disappeared in the 1800s when Christian missionaries came to the islands of Hawaii. These missionaries believed that this dance was immoral and went against godliness. The newly Christianized aliʻi (royalty and nobility) were urged to ban the hula. In 1830 Queen Ka’ahumanu banned public performances of the hula. However, many continued to privately patronize the hula and by the 1850s, public hula was regulated by a system of licensing.

During the reign of King Kalakaua from 1874–1891, the traditional Hawaiian ‘performing arts’ had a resurgence. His sister Princess Lili’uokalani (the future Queen Lili’uokalani) devoted herself to the ‘old ways’, as the patron of the ancient’s chants (mele, hula). She stressed the importance to revive the diminishing culture of their ancestors within the damaging influence of foreigners that was forever changing Hawaii.

Today, people often associate hula with men and women in short grass skirts with a rapid movement of the hips and twirling fire. However, that’s not hula dancing but a Polynesian form of dance, popular at luaus. The authentic hula is a slower more soulful dance, encompassing a variety of sacred styles and moods and primarily performed by women in full, formal dress. It is also common to see men dancing the hula as well, but generally, it is a dance performed by women.

Since 1964, the ‘Merrie Monarch Festival’ has become an annual hula competition and is held each spring. It was created to honor King Kalākaua who was known as the Merrie Monarch as he revived the art of hula. It now attracts visitors from all over the world to Hawai’i and so the art of the hula, at least in its modern form, lives on.

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