For many of us, hula conjures up visions of slender Hawaiian women in leafy skirts, coconut bras and plastic leis. Think Blue Hawaii, a 1961 Elvis movie, or the Brady Bunch's ill-fated trip to the islands, complete with a Tiki curse and Alice in a grass skirt.
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Until recently, those stereotypes threatened to become the only readily available representations of hula, an age-old Hawaiian cultural practice enacted through chanting, singing and dancing. Each of hula's movements has a meaning that helps tell a story about gods and goddesses, nature or important events. Rather than simply a performance geared for tourists, the dance is something Hawaiians did for themselves for centuries, at religious ceremonies honoring gods or rites of passage and at social occasions as a means of passing down history.
After years of Western imperialism—under which hula was first discouraged by Christian missionaries in the early 1800s and later marketed as kitsch in the mid-1900s—the dance, in many Hawaiians' eyes, was losing any real sense of history or culture. "Outside influences were making it obsolete," says Rae Fonseca, a kumu hula, or hula master, in Hilo on the Big Island. As a result, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a renewed interest in hula's traditional roots began to sweep across the state. Adrienne Kaeppler, curator of oceanic ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and an expert in hula, helped form the State Council on Hawaiian Dance in 1969. "During its meetings," she says, "we brought in some of the older hula masters who were willing to share their dances in a variety of workshops." The classes filled quickly, signaling the beginning of hula's renaissance. "It just went on from there," Kaeppler says.
Today, serious hula is everywhere in Hawaii. The dance can also be found among the mainland diaspora and other places such as Japan, Europe and Mexico. Even Hollywood has joined in—Hula Girls, this year's Japanese entry in the Academy Award's foreign language category, tells a charming tale of rural Japanese girls learning the dance. Halaus, or schools of hula, have cropped up in most Hawaiian towns, and men and women of all ages study the dance diligently. "I have my classes twice a week for each age group," Fonseca says. "It entails a lot of dedication."
Kumu hulas generally teach their students both hula kahiko (traditional hula) which involves chanting accompanied by percussion instruments, and hula 'auana (modern hula) which features songs, mainly sung in Hawaiian, and instruments such as the ukulele and guitar. Early hula kahiko costumes for women featured skirts made of kapa, or bark cloth. Men wore the skirts, too, or just a loincloth, called a malo. A lei for the head and its counterpart for the ankles and wrists—called kupe'e—were made of plants or materials such as shells and feathers. Hula 'auana emerged in the late 1800s, when international visitors introduced stringed instruments to the culture. It was at this time that the ubiquitous grass skirts came on the scene as well, though costumes for hula 'auana are often more Western in appearance—fabric tops, skirts and dresses for women, and shorts and pants for men, but with lei and kupe'e as adornments. These accessories, however, depend upon which type of dance is being performed. "In hula kahiko," says Noenoelani Zuttermeister, a kumu hula who teaches at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, "a circular lei would be worn on top of the head, whereas in hula 'auana, the dancer may affix flowers to one side of the head."
But while hula historically has involved a merging of different cultural forms, kumu hulas of today want blending stopped. Rather than integrate Japanese or, say, Mexican dance traditions with Hawaiian hula in Tokyo or Mexico City, Fonseca says hula must be kept pure, wherever it is performed. "It's up to us teachers to stress that where we come from is important," he says. Zuttermeister strongly agrees: "If the link is not maintained as it should, then we're not passing on something that is hula and we're not being true to our culture."
Fittingly, hula is strongly associated with family tradition. Both Fonseca and Zuttermeister come from hula-focused families: Fonseca's grandmother was a hula performer in the 1930s, and Zuttermeister's mother taught the dance. Perhaps the best example of a hula dynasty in action is Aloha Dalire, a kumu hula from the town of Heeia on Oahu and the first winner of the Miss Aloha Hula title at the famed Merrie Monarch festival. This weeklong event sponsoring three days of hula competition has been called the "Olympics of hula." The dance's best and brightest compete, and the contests are so popular they're televised live in Hawaii.
Miss Aloha Hula, as one might imagine, is part beauty pageant winner, part mind-blowing hula dancer. Dalire won the title in 1971, a time, she says, when the contest was open to anyone "over 18 and ready to step into the limelight." She hails from a long line of dancers—she's the seventh generation—and her three daughters followed suit. They each individually won Miss Aloha Hula, in 1991, 1992 and 1999.
Dalire believes the Miss Aloha Hula contest births many kumu hulas. That may be true, but the path to becoming a hula master is not universally agreed upon. Each hula school has its own particular steps and rituals. Several kumus seemed reluctant to describe these, instead uttering the Hawaiian proverb, "All knowledge does not come from one," when pressed about them. Dalire says students must study Hawaiian history, culture and language, as well as dance. Malama Chong, a protégé of Fonseca's, says lei-making and costuming are also important. In addition, students may be required to heed kapus (taboos), including abstinence and food restrictions. "It's a serious undertaking that requires years of training," Chong says.
Indeed. Hula has again taken its place as a proud and integral part of Hawaiian culture. The next time you hear Turner Classic Movies, remember Dalire's parting words: "We don't always run around in grass skirts—they're only for sharing hula. We're modernized as much as anyone else."
And, for the record, she's never worn a coconut bra.
Mimi Kirk is an editor and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.