Tales of the Mermaids of Waiahuakua

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Hawaiian Hula

Posted by Hawaiian Mermaids on March 26, 2011 at 5:37 PM

The Hula dance is associated with Hawaii and luaus and while everyone knows what the hula is very few people are actually knowledgeable of its origin, not even the Hawaiians. According to Hawaiian history there is no information available as to who performed the first hula dance or why, however it is a common agreement that the original hula dance was performed by a god or goddess, making the dance sacred to Hawaiians. And this dance is sacred to men and women in Hawaii because the hula was danced by both sexes despite some information stating only men danced the hula. This information is incorrect and actually men and women both were involved in the sacred hula dance.

There are many types of Polynesian dances; however the hula is one of a kind and completely different than other dances in this area of the world. The origination of the hula was used for rituals and ceremonies, however this changed over time and eventually the hula was a dance used strictly for entertainment.

 When dancing the hula individuals truly must become one with the dance and the actions, objects, or images they are imitating in their hula dance. The hula is a very meaningful dance and every movement of the body represents something. In addition to this, the hands are very important in the hula dance as well. When the individual is dancing the hula they may be imitating a palm tree, war, plants, and even animals. Because of this when the individual is dancing they are transforming themselves mentally into the object they are portraying through dance. Basically, the hula dancer is telling a story through the movements of the body and hands and as a result it is very important to watch. Chants also accompany the hula dance and while they used to be the most important part of the dance to portray what was happening they are no longer so and the movements are most important. You will notice the difference if you see a portrayal of old style hula dancing compared to new style hula dancing. While both are still hula dancing and fun to watch, the first is more ritualistic and the second more entertaining.

 The hula dancers wear a costume in order to perform the hula dance. This consists of leis made of flowers around the neck or even the shoulders. A grass skirt is also used and is made of tapa and known as a pau. The dancers also wear anklets made of whale bone or even dog teeth. The whole ensemble makes up the vision of the hula dancer the whole world is aware of.

 In the past, when hula was danced as a religious ritual rather than simply for entertainment the rules regarding the hula dance were very strict and individuals involved in hula dancing school were required to follow them while they were learning how to dance. Generally, students were required to follow all rules and behave properly while obeying their hula teacher in all requests. Some of the rules stated that hula students could not cut their fingernails or even their hair. Other rules stated hula students could not engage in sex nor could they eat certain foods that were forbidden. As a result, the life of the hula dancer in hula school was very strict, yet all of the rules were for a purpose that believed the students would learn to dance the hula better if they did not engage in the forbidden activities.

 Today there are two types of hula, hula kahiko and hula auana. Hula hahiko is the old style that was described above and generally includes percussion, chanting, and the traditional costumes. Hula kahiko is traditional and ritualistic and the chanting tells the story more than the dance moves. However, for the more entertaining hula auna there is music, guitars, entertaining costumes to enhance the dance, ukuleles and even songs. This type of hula uses body movements and the hands to really tell the story because it is easier for tourists to understand.

 While the hula dance has been around for thousands of years and always been popular it almost disappeared in the 1800s when missionaries arrived in Hawaii. The missionaries believed that hula dancing was devilish and against God and tried to convince the dancers of their wrongdoing by dancing the hula. However, King Kalakaua did not want the traditional dance of the islands to disappear simply because the missionaries did not understand what the hula was all about in the first place so he took action.

 As a result, King Kalakaua developed his own group of hula dancers and encouraged them to learn the hula dance, the old style hula, and fortunately the hula did not disappear and still remains a very important dance of the islands and even today there are hundreds of hula schools on all the Hawaiian islands that teach the hula dance, old style, to the students. Even today many of the hula schools have strict rules like the old hula schools implemented.

 There are even hula schools and groups that teach old style hula dancing to people on the mainland so while hula remains an important part of Hawaiian culture the culture is spreading and many people show an interest in learning how to hula dance.


Hula is a dance form accompanied by chant or song. It was developed in the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians who originally settled there. The chant or song is called a mele. The hula dramatizes or comments on the mele.

There are many styles of hula. They are commonly divided into two broad categories: ancient hula, as performed before Western encounters with Hawaiʻi, is called kahiko. It is accompanied by chant and traditional instruments. Hula as it evolved under Western influence, in the 19th and 20th centuries, is called ʻauana. It is accompanied by song and Western-influenced musical instruments such as the guitar, the 'ukulele, and the double bass.

Hula is taught in schools called halau. The teacher of hula is the kumu hula, where kumu means source of knowledge. Hula dancing is a complex art form, and there are many hand motions used to signify aspects of nature, such as the basic hula and coconut tree motions, or the basic leg steps, such as the Kaholo, Ka'o, and Ami.

There are other dances that come from other Polynesian islands such as Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Aotearoa (New Zealand), however the hula is unique to the Hawaiian Islands.


Hula Kahiki is often defined as hula composed prior to 1893 which do not include modern instrumentation (such as guitar, `ukulele, etc.). It encompassed an enormous variety of styles and moods, from the solemn and sacred to the frivolous. Many hula were created to praise the chiefs and performed in their honor, or for their entertainment. Types of hula kahiko include ʻālaʻapapa, haʻa, ʻolapa, and many others.

Some hula was considered a religious performance. As was true of ceremonies at the heiau, the platform temple, even a minor error was considered to invalidate the performance. It might even be a presage of bad luck or have dire consequences. Dancers who were learning to do such hula necessarily made many mistakes. Hence they were ritually secluded and put under the protection of the goddess Laka during the learning period. Ceremonies marked the successful learning of the hula and the emergence from seclusion.

Hula kahiko is performed today by dancing to the historical chants. Many hula kahiko are characterized by traditional costuming, by an austere look, and a reverence for their spiritual roots.


Hawaiian history was an oral history. It was codified in genealogies and chants, which were memorized strictly as passed down. In the absence of a written language, this was the only available method of ensuring accuracy. Chants told the stories of creation, mythology, royalty, and other significant events and people.


The mele of hula ʻauana are generally sung as if they were popular music. A lead voice sings in a major scale, with occasional harmony parts. The subject of the songs is as broad as the range of human experience. People write mele hula ʻauana to comment on significant people, places or events or simply to express an emotion or idea.


Traditional female dancers wore the everyday pāʻū, or wrapped skirt, but were topless. Today this form of dress has been altered. As a sign of lavish display, the pāʻū might be much longer than the usual length of tapa, or barkcloth, which was just long enough to go around the waist. Visitors report seeing dancers swathed in many yards of tapa, enough to increase their circumference substantially. Dancers might also wear decorations such as necklaces, bracelets, and anklets, as well as many lei (in the form of headpieces, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets).

Traditional male dancers wore the everyday malo, or loincloth. Again, they might wear bulky malo made of many yards of tapa. They also wore necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and lei.

 The materials for the lei worn in performance were gathered in the forest, after prayers to Laka and the forest gods had been chanted. The lei and tapa worn for sacred hula were considered imbued with the sacredness of the dance, and were not to be worn after the performance. Lei were typically left on the small altar to Laka found in every hālau, as offerings.


Hula performed for spontaneous daily amusement or family feasts were attended with no particular ceremony. However, hula performed as entertainment for chiefs were anxious affairs. High chiefs typically traveled from one place to another within their domains. Each locality had to house, feed, and amuse the chief and his or her entourage. Hula performances were a form of fealty, and often of flattery to the chief. There were hula celebrating his lineage, his name, and even his genitals (hula maʻi). Sacred hula, celebrating Hawaiian gods, were also danced. All these performances must be completed without error (which would be both unlucky and disrespectful).

Visiting chiefs from other domains would also be honored with hula performances. This courtesy was often extended to important Western visitors. They left many written records of 18th and 19th century hula performances.

Categories: Hawaiian Gods and Goddesses

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1 Comment

Reply maddie
10:46 PM on July 3, 2011 


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