Hula, as a term, is as specific and vague as the idea of love. Most people have an idea of what it is, but when asked to describe it, what comes to mind depends entirely on that person’s point of view.
Many who have not lived on the islands, and even many who have, think of beautiful girls with their hair long and loose, wearing coconut shell bras, grass skirts, and big smiles. They tuck flowers behind their ears, and drape fragrant flower lei around their necks before they dance. Happy, heavyset men in aloha shirts play ‘ukulele and sing in falsetto, while these girls shake their hips and wave their arms, dancing barefoot against backdrops of palm trees, as the sun slowly sets over the ocean.
This is true, especially in resorts and postcards. Though stopping there is like taking a trip to the Louvre, just to look at one painting.
What hula really is, even more than a dance, is a method of storytelling. Every motion the dancer makes relates directly to the words of the song, whether it is sung in English or Hawaiian. Good dancers act out the stories. Great dancers become the things they are depicting.
Contemporary hula, or ‘auana, is where the sensual dress and flowers come in. The dancer silently tells a story with her body, to the accompaniment of singers and musicians. It is typically performed solo, softly pleasing to the senses, and entirely secular in nature. But most dancers agree that to truly understand hula, you must begin with kahiko, the ancient style from which ‘auana evolved. This is what I have been practicing for over a year now, and still am only beginning to learn.
Kahiko is usually a group performance, of women or men, danced in evenly-spaced straight lines. Chanters tell the story as the dancers depict it visually, moving in precise unison while making it their own. The mele (song) is a call and response: the dancers prompt the chanters at the end of each “verse,” with the first phrase in the following line. It is performed exclusively in Hawaiian, in traditional dress, with regalia made of native plants, and accompanied by ancient rhythmic instruments, played by either the chanters, dancers, or both.
Watching kahiko, with all of the elements involved, can be like attending a ballet, opera, and church service, all in a series of five minute bursts. Performing kahiko, with understanding and dedication, is a transcendent experience. Western culture relies more on the eyes and mind, when it comes to experiencing art. Kahiko hits you in the gut, and the heart, if you are open to the mana (energy) it can raise.
The motions are as disciplined and demanding as any martial art, yet it carries you along like an ocean current, once you are in the midst of a dance. Adornments for the ankles, wrists, neck, and head are hand-made by each dancer, for each performance, out of leaves and nuts which are held as sacred, and relevant to the story of that particular mele. Each mele is dedicated at the end, often to the goddess Hi’iakaikapoliopele, one of the patronesses of hula.
There are specific chants to ask permission from the plants as you gather their leaves, chants to repeat while making the adornments, and chants for when you are putting them on. Before the dance, the space is purified, an altar is set up, and invitational chants and dances are performed, to welcome Laka, the goddess of hula. Experienced dancers may even invite Laka into themselves, to let her take over their bodies and dance through them for the duration of the performance. I am sure that this, as well as the sexual context of some of the dances, is why hula was banned for a time, after the missionaries came to the islands.
Christianity is common practice in modern Hawai’i, though God coexists peacefully now with other forms of worship. It is common to see ti leaf lei draped over sacred rocks or trees, and offerings left for Pelehonuamea and other traditional deities. I myself always bring something to share with Pele, when I visit Halema’uma’u crater at Volcano National Park. It feels right to do so, like bringing a bottle of wine or a desert to a dinner party at a good friend’s house. It is a deeper aspect to the magic of these islands, and even when people do not consciously see or believe in such things, they can still sense that something is going on here.
Kahiko tells epic tales, of the gods and goddesses of old Hawai’i. These elemental beings, with very human hearts, fell in love, fought, cursed, transformed, and brought life anew. They were, and are, the forces behind the flow of lava, sudden rains, fresh water springs, plants retaking barren fields of rock, and the coming of schools of fish. Pre-contact Hawai’i was an oral culture, so there were different versions of the same stories in each district and island. While there are many strict protocols which need to be followed in kahiko, it is not simply a matter of obeying rules. There are too many ways in which things can be done, for one to be “right,” or another to be “wrong.” Respect is what it is all about, and the saving grace for if you make a mistake.
I was told that the best way to find the true heart of Hawai’i, is to dance hula. Each time I practice, even alone in my apartment, finding fluidity in the motions and saying my parts while listening to the mele in my head, I can feel that heart beating stronger inside of me. More than a dance, more than a story and the means to tell it, each individual hula is a piece of something greater. As with love, hula is more than even a state of mind: it is a state of being. It is a force, both within and without, which will change your life in ways you can neither predict nor control. It requires commitment, and constant reaffirmation, and now that it has come into my life, I don’t know how I ever lived without it.