The History of Hula Dancing

The History of Hula Dancing

Hula is still one of the most internationally performed dances and is recognized as a major part of Hawaii: After all, what’s a luau without a hula dancer? The hula was a way for the ancient Hawaiian people to tell their stories and have those stories passed down from generation to generation without writing them down.

There was a time when it was only performed by men because it was kapu (forbidden) for women to dance the hula. Most of the chants used are about the gods and goddesses of ancient times such as Pele (goddess of fire) and Ku (god of war). Some have been “modernized” by music groups but most are still performed as chants. Hula was outlawed when missionaries came to Hawaii as it was seen as a hedonistic ritual. It came back into the Hawaiian culture during the reign of the “Merrie Monarch”, King David Kalakaua, around the 1870’s.

In the early 20’s and 30’s, when Hawaii started to become a tourist scene, the “hapa haole” (songs that contained lyrics in the English and Hawaiian languages) dances along with cellophane and ti leaf skirts came into play so that foreigners could somewhat understand the music. Many people in the mainland U. S. still think that songs like “I Want to go back to my Little Grass Shack” or “The Wicky Wacky Hula” are considered part of the ancient hula. But then again, some people believe that the people in Hawaii live in grass shacks without power or water and fail to recognize that Hawaii is the 50th state.

Hula is a form of expression, the telling of a story through hand gestures. It involves your entire body from your eyes to your feet. Every movement your hands make is the meaning of a word or phrase. Costumes can be very elaborate such as a holoku (long fitted dress) with or without a train or as simple as a pa’u skirt and top (layered skirt and a simple top).

Lei (garlands) made of flowers and/or other fauna or shells adorn the dancers from head to ankles. Dances may be accompanied by implements such as “ili ili” (a set of 4 smooth flat stones used like castanets), pu’ili (a set of 2 bamboo sticks with slats cut into one end that are hit together), “uli uli” (gourd rattles with feather and/or cloth tops), kala’au (a set of 2 wooden sticks) or ipu (hollow gourds). Some dances are performed while sitting.

There are two kinds of hula – hula kahiko and hula auwana. Hula kahiko, or the ancient hula, is accompanied by a chant and ipu, drums and other instruments to keep the beat. Chants are also different as well because of the different styles of chanting. Some chants are almost as if the chanter is singing. Hula auwana, or the modern hula, is accompanied by music. It is more of the “fun” side of the dance when more playful attitudes and costumes are taken on.

Both styles of hula use the same basic foot steps – kaholo (2 steps to one side), ami (round circular motion of the hips), uwehi (lifting one foot then coming up on the balls of both feet), kawelu (pivoting motion), oniu (figure 8 motion) and lele (walking motion). There are quite a few steps because variations to the basic steps other names. Hand motions interpret the words of the chant or song and can vary by teacher or school. The dancer’s eyes always follow their hands.

Hula is usually taught in a halau (hula school) that is run by a teacher that “graduated” from a haumana (student) to a kumu (teacher) from a halau. This takes quite a long time to accomplish and you must pass through a series of “tests” or stages before you can become a kumu. You need to understand the language and culture fully so that you can interpret the dance to the fullest. You need to be able to bring a song to life in a way that everyone is able to understand. You need to have a lot of patience as some students are harder to teach than others. You become a seamstress and a florist because you need to have costumes and adornments.


A kumu is a choreographer and part-time parent to younger students as well a teacher for all. It takes a lot of dedication and a true love for the dance to become a kumu. Many people dance hula for years but never become a kumu. It is a major responsibility because your halau becomes your child. Just like you need to care for a baby, you need to really care for your halau from day one. You will notice that you can have 10 students from different halau dancing the same exact song but it will be interpreted differently. This is because of the way the student’s kumu interpreted and/or learned to dance that song.

It may sound strange to hear that a halau is from Japan or other place other than Hawaii, but it is very common these days. There are many halau in the U. S. mainland because of people from Hawaii moving to other states and starting a school there. Japan has quite a few halau also and hula is very popular there. Hula festivals in Hawaii bring in thousands of dancers from all over the world to the tiny state. The most famous of those festivals is the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which is held annually during the spring in the town of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, is in honor of King David Kalakaua.

Halau come from near and far to compete in this invitation only competition and it is an honor to be part of it. It takes a lot of dedication, sweat, tears and money for halau to enter. Practicing the dances that were chosen for the competition takes place sometimes even before a halau is chosen for the competition. Many halau have long chants that the dancers use to enter and/or exit the stage. Some are small groups of dancers, some almost completely cover the stage. Most halau are only competing with women dancers, some both men and women.


For a week, the Big Island is swarming with halau, their families and friends and visitors coming to see the competition. It is a 3 day event that begins with the Miss Aloha Hula competition where one woman is chosen to represent her halau for the coveted title. The next two nights are Hula kahiko and then Hula auwana. It’s a like a big party. Don’t try to get a hotel room or rental vehicle the week of the festival in or near Hilo because many people book their reservations well ahead of time and most places are totally sold out.

Getting tickets to attend the events are just as tough and always sell out in advance. It is an experience that you have to have at least once in your life. You can watch it live on TV or the web but it’s not like being there. There are also competitions throughout Hawaii and the world for seniors as well as children.

Hula is for everyone: It’s very common to see a 2 or 3 year old dancing hula, just like it’s very common to see an 80 year old dancing. If you can move, you can do it. It’s a great form of exercise. I’ve seen hula workout DVD’s for sale on-line!! It does work your whole body and takes some coordination to do but can be a fun way to put exercise into your life without making it a chore.

For many, hula is a part of life like breathing and eating. For those islanders that have left Hawaii, it is a way to keep home closer to them, sort of like a very long umbilical cord. Even if it’s 50 below zero in the middle of winter in the Midwest, you still feel like you are home in Hawaii and it’s a balmy 85 degrees when you are dancing hula.

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5 Comments
luna, posted this comment on Nov 22nd, 2008

thanks so much 4 infomation!

project got aced!, posted this comment on Feb 28th, 2009

thanks for all the great info!!!

kawehi, posted this comment on Jan 28th, 2010

mahalo for the information liked it alot and now maybe the haoles will noe wea we cumin from ah….

girls of willis, posted this comment on Mar 29th, 2010

i think it was helpful*(: tannne oooo
ter teltumm(:

Tiare Reed-Hauanio, posted this comment on Jan 24th, 2012

Mahalo for sharing…well written, Maika’i!

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