What's That Dance
By Joanna Gertler
Photo courtesy of Hula San VillageDance Troupe
Hula dancing originated in the Polynesian Islands and has a number of stories purporting to its provenance. Some of the stories involve the goddess of fire, Pele, asking Laka to amuse her. Laka did so by dancing for her- the dance she made became known as the hula, and Laka, the goddess of Hula.
Debate ranges as to whether it was originally danced by men and women, but it seems that it has always been performed by both genders.
Today, there are two types of Hula: hula kahiko
-old style & hula auana
-modern style. Old style Hula is believed to have spiritual and religious significance and is performed in traditional costume with only chanting and percussion to accompany the dancers. In this form, the story being told is depicted primarily through the chanting rather than the dance moves. Modern style hula is more commonly seen and allows for more creative costuming and accompaniment with songs played on ukuleles, guitars and other instruments. It uses body movements, particularly the hands to tell the story and thus is more easily understood by tourists. Some say modern style hula is more entertaining than old style, which may viewed as more ritualistic.
Hula dancing is a complex and meaningful dance form where each and every body movement means something, eg. Hand motions will signify aspects of nature – trees, plants or animals. The intent of the dancer is to transform themselves through dancing into the object they are portraying. Essentially, the dancer is telling a story and to understand the story, close observation by the audience is required.
There is a recognizable style of costume worn to peform the Hula; a skirt for women - made of tapa, and called a pau. The flowered neck and shoulder coverings made of flowers are leis. Around the ankles and wrists, whale or dog bone bracelets are worn. Male dancers wear a loincloth, also made of tapa and called a malo. As with the females, they'll also wear anklets, bracelets and leis. All performers dance in bare feet – even when performing on an abrasive, volcanic mountaintop!
During the 1800s when missionaries arrived in Hawaii, Hula dancing was very much discouraged due it being regarded as a form of devil worship. Fortunately, King Kalakaua encouraged the old style of Hula as a traditional art form and resurgence of it evolved.
Today, both forms of hula continue to be taught through Halau Hula (a Hula school). Hundreds of these schools exist across Hawaii and on other islands. To learn more about Hula visit huladancehq.com
Canadians can check out Hula lessons and performances in British Columbia, Toronto and New Brunswick.