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The storied history of Hawaii’s beloved ceremonial dance.
ON THE HBO series “The White Lotus,” which unpacks the complexities of race and colonialism at a luxury resort, two characters meet at the Hawaiian luau, a theatrical feast where male hula dancers stomp, chant, and dance with fire.
The portrayal frustrates Kawika Freitas every time he sees it.
“It’s always about the ‘fire dance,’ which isn’t Hawaiian or native to hula at all,” says Freitas, director of public and cultural relations at Maui’s Old Lāhainā Lūʻau (one of Hawaii’s most historically authentic and accoladed Lūʻau shows). “We don’t do it, because we try to be as authentic as possible, but it’s our number one complaint. People expect the big fire dance finale and then get disappointed when they don’t see it.”
For award-winning hula dancer and singer Kaumakaiwa Kanakaʻole, this Hollywood depiction of hula — from fire dancing to cellophane skirts — reflects Hawaii’s decades-long cultural abduction and commodification.
“It’s America’s version of hula and not Hawaii’s version of hula,” says Kanakaʻole, who descends from an esteemed lineage of kumu hula, the Hawaiian term for master hula teacher. “Unfortunately, hula became a convenient modality in which to continue the watering down of our culture for entertainment value.”
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Off screen, hula is one of the most sacred aspects of Hawaiian culture, and it goes vastly beyond entertainment. It’s an ancient ceremonial practice that honors gods and connects humans to nature. It passed down stories when Hawaii’s written language hadn’t yet been formed. It’s a medium through which one can transcend the physical world and enter the spiritual realm to glean information about the universe. To anyone who studies, hula is life.
Hula’s own history reflects that of its culture. In the last 200 years, the ritual has mirrored Hawaii’s journey from self-sovereignty to colonization to statehood. Hula went from the official dance of its people to an illegal practice done in hiding, to a vaguely reminiscent performance to entertain mainland travelers at the hotel luau. But in recent years, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike have begun returning hula to its original expression, while incorporating new chants and melodies depicting modern times. Hotels, once guilty of perpetuating hula theater, are educating guests in partnership with kumus from respected hālaus, or hula schools. From Oahu to Maui, hula is returning to its most authentic form.
Hula’s journey begins in the early 1800s. Some say it started on the volcanic island of Hawaii, where the goddess Hiʻiaka danced to appease her sister, the volcano goddess Pele. Another story points to the island of Molokaʻi, where Laka, the hula goddess, gave birth to the dance.
Early on, hula was danced by men. They’d wear loincloths, or malo, around their waists, with a rattle made of dog teeth on their neck or leg that would shake as they stomped. This type of hula, known as kahiko, is sexually charged, as dancers honored the king’s desire to produce an heir.
It’s a medium through which one can transcend the physical world and enter the spiritual realm to glean information about the universe. To anyone who studies, hula is life.
Christian missionaries arriving in 1820 were responsible for banning hula. According to Freitas, it was a ruler who declared hula too sacred for public consumption. “The temples were destroyed and the worshipping of gods was done in 1819, but the dance was still practiced,” says Freitas. “The reigning king or queen said hula should be considered ceremonial and not a form of entertainment.”
King David Kalākaua, the “Merrie Monarch,” is widely hailed for bringing back hula in 1874. The Kalākaua era of hula saw men in pants, shirts, floral headpieces, and wristlets. When Spaniards arrived in the 1880s to teach Hawaiians to rope cattle, their guitars inspired the ukulele, which began accompanying the dance.
With Hawaii’s annexation in 1898 and the subsequent tourist boom, the early 1900s saw the “vaudevillian” era of hula, which existed well into the 1950s. Films like “South Pacific” and “Blue Hawaii” depicted a diluted version of Hawaii and hula, where natives — and Hawaii itself — became accessories to the white experience. Around this time, hotels began capitalizing on the luau, a celebration that originally marked milestones like first birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries. “They took an event that belonged to the native community and transposed it to tourists so that they could get a more ‘Hawaiian’ experience,” says Kanakaʻole.
Amid a struggling economy, the 1960s brought about a resurgence in Hawaiian pride and identity thanks, in part, to the burgeoning Merrie Monarch Festival, a global hula showcase and competition on the island of Hawaii. Over the last 50 years, Merrie Monarch has grown into a massive, three-day televised event with various hula competitions, parades, arts fairs, and pageants.
“Merrie Monarch was developed to bring some kind of event into [the town of] Hilo for the economy, and it just took off,” says Leinaʻala Pavao Jardin, a kumu hula whose hālau swept the awards this past year.
At Jardin’s hālau, she teaches students as young as two of the intricacies of hula, from the dance itself to the implements to costumes and adornments. Everything is handmade on-site. Jardin sees her role as a kumu to connect the teachings of her late kumu to future generations, as well as preserve the sanctity of hula.
“Our goal is to keep these various arts alive,” says Jardin. “It’s easy to buy a lei, but what we are doing is the right way of perpetuating our culture for the next generation and generations after that. My goal is to pass hula’s legacy down so that hula will live.”
Hawaii’s tourism industry is also course correcting with cultural programming dedicated to sharing the most authentic form of hula. Wendy Tuivaioge, who goes by Aunty Wendy, is the director of Hawaiian programs at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea. Before the pandemic she organized classes for guests, like lei making, weaving, and hula. Post-pandemic, the hotel expanded its offerings by giving guests a front-row seat to a weekly hula practice from Tuivaioge’s hālau, where real students train with their kumu, as opposed to staged hula theater.
“Some places want to show tourists what’s pretty, but if we have an opportunity to share what we feel is authentic, we’re going to take the opportunity to do that,” says Tuivaioge. “We can’t complain about something if we’re not willing to be a part of the solution, and that solution is sharing with guests what exactly hula is.”
At The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, guests can take hula lessons with kumu Mapuana Samonte-Nowak twice a week, while other cultural programs include lei po‘o (Hawaiian flower-crown making), lei ki kupe‘e (flower wristlets), ukulele lessons, and a Farewell to the Day ceremony and chant each evening at sunset. “The authenticity lies in the past of what our kupuna, or ancestors, left us,” says Samonte-Nowak.
Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, offers hula five times a week with two beginners’ classes for guests of all ages. The property also teaches hula to young children. Each kumu shares the essence of the hula and evokes its history, traditions, and evolution.
Michelle Kaulu Amaral, or Aunty Kaulu, is a premier hula soloist who has spent over 33 years sharing hula throughout the island of Hawaii. At the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, she credits the property for giving her the space to invite guests to learn and share in the Aloha spirit. For Aunty Kaulu’s generation, the opportunity is particularly rewarding. She remembers when her parents couldn’t speak Hawaiian in public, following a language ban that lasted for 90 years.
“Our culture was suppressed for so long that to experience this resurgence is something our parents and grandparents dreamed about,” says Kaulu. “I get to take what I’ve learned and teach what is authentic and, at the same time, give our guests the space to receive, understand, and love, so that when they leave here, they’ve been touched by Aloha. That’s been my life.”
In citing more modern interpretations of hula, Kaulu finds new melodies to be more complex than in eras past, both musically and grammatically. “Every once in a while, something new comes out and it will be a hit, but I wonder how much life it has to pass on,” says Kaulu. “When I look at traditional songs from the 1940s and ’50s, those are the ones everyone knows at the party, because they’ve been passed down.”
In recent years, hula’s grown into a global phenomenon, thanks largely to social media. Kaulu has traveled throughout the world teaching hula. During the pandemic, a German community started a hula Facebook page with over 3,000 followers from countries like Mexico, Japan, and Costa Rica. When the war in Ukraine broke out, Tuivaioge recalled seeing Ukrainians dancing hula on television, some of whom relocated to Hawaii.
“There are always going to be people who say this isn’t to be shared,” says Tuivaioge. “But there’s so many more of us who are saying it definitely needs to be shared — the culture, the language, the hula. Why? Because when it continues, when we share it, our culture lives on all over the world.”
As for the next stop on hula’s journey, the answer might lie in the past. For each group who embraces the art form, it will mean something different, like all cultural vestiges that travel from generation to generation.
“Hula is experiencing a rebirth, reframing, reimagining, and reintroduction back into our DNA and community,” says Kanakaʻole. “In the future, hula will mean something new. Like any other form of practice or living art, it will reflect the needs and circumstances of the era for which it serves.”
Caroline Tell is a travel and lifestyle writer for the New York Times, Town & Country, Forbes, Departures, and more. She and her family are based in New York City.
Originally from Macau, Hanitijo grew up in Montreal, Canada. After studying at Cooper Union, she spent a decade living and working between Paris, London, and New York. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
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