Everything you may know about hula could be wrong. Everything you think you may know about hula could be wrong. Actually, what do you really know about hula?
Hula. It’s just a dance, right? It’s a lot of hip wiggling and it’s kind of seductive. It’s suggestive. It’s graceful. It’s a turn on.
Well, yes, it’s a dance, and yes, it can involve the hips, and yes, and yes, and yes. But it’s also far more than a dance. There’s a lot more to hula than what meets the eye.
The 10 common beliefs about hula dancing that just aren’t true
Myth 1: Hula is only danced by women.
When you think of a hula dancer, what do you see? Tell the truth. If you’re like most people, even if you’ve been to Hawaii, you’ll probably imagine an attractive woman with long dark hair swaying her hips on a white sand beach. She’ll wear a grass skirt and a coconut bra. Palm trees will move in the wind with her dancing. She will smile invitingly. You’ll be mesmerized.
This is the image many people share of hula dancers. Beautiful bronze-skinned women in a romantic setting.
“A girl danced. With hands and arms undulant as restless waves, her body supple as a swaying vine, her bare feet moving with caressing lightness, she danced against an exotic background of trailing, tangled lianas, and tall, sky-rocketing palm trees.” — Don Blanding.
The dancing hula girl has become a popular symbol of Hawaii.
While there are many beautiful female hula dancers, hula is also danced by men. Actually, many scholars believe that the original hula dancers in ancient Hawaii were men, not women. Only the men performed the sacred temple dances. Such hula was danced in secret, with special rituals and prayers to honor Hawaiian gods. Hula, which requires strength and balance, was part of the training for warriors.
But through popular culture, travel posters and movies, hula dancing became associated with women. The alluring aspect of hula was played up and dancing hula girls became big business.
Indeed, there were times in Hawaii’s history when male hula dancers were not that common. In the 1950s, there were very few male dancers in Waikiki. Hula training lasted about a year, promoting the popular, English-language song and dance numbers cultivated for the tourism industry. Most students were female and learned a basic repertoire of popular and kitschy hula songs designed to promote the exoticness of Hawaii and entertain visitors. Men and boys began to avoid hula dancing because it was too feminine. Others found it too watered-down for their taste.
In the 1970s, hula underwent a change, as practitioners and teachers wanted to showcase more authentic and traditional forms of hula. Men began returning to hula and expressing its masculine side.
In the ancient form of hula, kahiko hula, male hula dancers can hypnotize an audience with their elegance, muscle control, and sheer masculinity. Men in hula also can use their body as a “musical instrument” in chest slapping dances, hula paʻi umauma.
The men in the Hawaiian language are called kane, and the kinds of dances they often perform are not undulating and swaying so much as vigorous and strenuous. They can demonstrate deep knee bends, squats – like a squatting walk or duck walk, and hold grueling poses that make them “feel the burn.” One can imagine them as warriors in training.
Myth 2: Hula dancing is supposed to be erotic and full of sex appeal.
With the arrival of foreigners to Hawaii, hula became perceived as a risqué and provocative dance. The swaying hip movements scandalized early missionaries. Dancing with moving hips was taboo in public since it hinted of sexuality. Moreover, native Hawaiian women often danced with their upper bodies uncovered. The Hawaiians of that time did not equate nudity or exposed body parts with sexuality.
But even native Hawaiians had traditional hula dances that celebrate love, sex, and procreation, with audacious and suggestive meanings implicit in the performance. The intention of these hula dances could be similar in tone to the Biblical counsel, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Such dances encouraged royal families to produce offspring to continue their lineage.
No wonder that sailors and other men found hula exotic and sexy, coming from a culture of Puritan American values. Some traveling hula shows featuring only female dancers were marketed exclusively to men, emphasizing the dancers’ sex appeal. In later decades, hula became associated with the allure and glamour of exotic Hawaii, with the image of natives lounging around or dancing scantily clad. It was easy to sexualize hula and make it profitable as entertainment.
Similarly, modern women may develop fantasies about male hula dancers, who embody virility and masculinity wearing only a malo or loincloth, or other minimal costumes. But when male dancers perform the ancient kahiko hula, instead of arousing feelings of desire, they can electrify the audience and give them goose bumps or what we call in Hawaii, “chickenskin.”
Not all hula dancers look like fashion models or have flawless physiques that resemble a Hawaiian version of Barbie and Ken. Male and female dancers include all ages, all physical levels, all body types, and all levels of health or stamina. Even professional dancers are not all slender and lean.
Some hula dancers have performed hula in their wheelchairs. They may not be able to sway their hips but they can still move their hands and arms with grace. Can you imagine a ballerina performing in a wheelchair? Expert hula teachers or kumu continue to perform and demonstrate hula as elders. Hula does not discriminate with age or body type.
Myth 3: Hula is all about entertainment.
Hula is more than a pleasing song and dance. Hula is more than a charming ethnic folk dance. In old Hawaii, hula was a way of practicing religion, with prayers given to the gods. Such dances were forbidden to outsiders, and could only be performed in the temples to the priests and guardians there.
Hula also commemorated chiefs, recounted historical deeds, celebrated nature through poetry and performance, or shared stories from times past. In a culture without a written language, hula preserved the oral history of the Hawaiian people. Songs and stories were memorized and passed down from generation to generation. Hula preserved entire genealogies.
Imagine if you combined one culture’s history, geography, poetry, genealogy, mythology, religion, news announcements, music, singing, dancing, and storytelling. In old Hawaii, all of that became hula.
As foreign influences and modernization changed Hawaii and consequently, hula, hula changed to appeal to a wider variety of people. Composers created English lyrics for hula dances, hula costumes changed to cellophane skirts, and hula became performed more for the sake of sheer entertainment and amusement.
“Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” – King Kalakaua
Hula is an integral part of Hawaiian culture. Hula dancers deeply study Hawaiian culture, language, traditions, and rituals. There is much more to hula than an entertaining performance.
Myth 4: Hula is the traditional dance of Polynesia.
Hula is uniquely Hawaiian – it’s the traditional dance of Hawaii that developed in Hawaii, though it is far more than a dance. As such, hula is not synonymous with all Polynesian dances. Other islands in Polynesia have their own ethnic dances stemming from their cultures. These include Tahitian dance, Maori dance, and Samoan fire knife dancing.
Polynesia, meaning many islands, is a vast region of the Pacific Ocean. It encompasses Hawaii at one end, New Zealand at the other end, and Easter Island. Hawaii is one of the most isolated land masses in the world. The nearest continental land mass to the Hawaiian Islands is over 2000 miles away.
The origins of hula are unknown. One version is that Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti introduced an early version of hula to Hawaii. Whatever hula’s beginnings, it developed into its own art form, in relative isolation from the rest of the world.
Myth 5: You can only learn to hula dance in Hawaii.
Actually, hula has become international. There are hula schools throughout the US, and it is also popular in Europe and Asia. A student who wishes to truly learn hula, including the cultural protocols and history and language of Hawaii, can find a halau, hula school. Halaus teach more than the entertaining hula that was commonly practiced in the 1950s, but the full spectrum of hula from ancient to modern.
Myth 6: The traditional hula dancing costume is a coconut bra and a grass skirt.
The stereotyped image of a hula dancer is a beautiful girl wearing a coconut bra and a grass skirt. But these are modern inventions! They never existed in ancient Hawaii.
The coconut half-shell bra was a marketing gimmick to enhance the mystique of the romantic island girl to outsiders. The grass skirt was not an invention, but it did not originate in Hawaiian. Natives from the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) traditionally wore skirts made out of grass and introduced them to Hawaii in the late 1800s. The Hawaiians were so intrigued, they created their version of the grass skirt from the widely available ti leaf plant.
Hula shows may often feature female dancers wearing coconut bras and grass skirts because it is such an alluring, romantic stereotype. If you want to hire a hula dancer, you can request that female dancers wear coconut bras and grass skirts, which can be entertaining and suggestive, but keep in mind, these are not traditional Hawaiian hula costumes. In particular, the wearing of coconut bras is a tongue in cheek nod to the last century’s playboy fantasies.
There are many types of hula costumes in Hawaii’s history. Some costumes are long sleeved dresses, trousers and shirts for men, long skirts and flowing tops.
Myth 7: Everyone in Hawaii knows how to hula.
This popular belief is similar to the notion that everyone in Hawaii knows how to surf. It’s not true. Lots of Hawaiians don’t know how to hula, especially if they are from an older generation when hula was undergoing so many changes.
Residents of Hawaii are not required to take hula lessons. People from Hawaii who you may meet outside Hawaii may have never performed hula. On the other hand, many students learn hula in public or private schools as part of a Hawaiian studies curriculum. But that doesn’t mean they know how to dance hula well.
Myth 8: The best way to see hula is at a luau.
For most visitors to Hawaii, their first glimpse of live hula will be at a luau. A luau is one of the easiest and most common ways to see a hula, since there are commercial luaus with hula shows on almost any given night, including holidays.
Yet, there are many other ways to see hula. Some resorts and hotels have hula shows on a daily or weekly basis. Hula is often performed at shopping centers, at opening ceremonies of stores or exhibits. Hula may even be performed in church, as part of a Christian service. Hula dancing can also be seen at festivals such as Kamehameha Day or May Day or in hula competitions.
One of the best ways to see hula on your own schedule is by hiring a group of hula dancers. You can hire hula dancers to perform at weddings, corporate events, or private parties. If you hire a hula dancer to perform or give a lesson, you have a special opportunity to “talk story” with him or her and ask questions about Hawaiian culture and lifestyle. This face to face interaction is generally not possible at public events that showcase hula.
Myth 9: All dances in Hawaii are hula.
Often at luaus in Hawaii, the dances are not just Hawaiian hula. They include the dances of Polynesia, including Tahitian dance. Tahitian dance is often confused with hula. It’s fast-paced with a quick hip moving action. Compared to Tahitian dance, hula can seem stately or slow, with the hips moving less quickly.
Hula also tends to involve the entire body rather than the hips. Hula incorporates a lot of hand gestures and arm movements to accompany a story or song. Tahitian dance uses more hip shaking to music or drums rather than songs or chants.
If the dancers are wearing tassels, they are probably Tahitian dancers. Tahitian dancers also frequently wear tan skirts of long fibers that looked like dried grasses. These Tahitian “grass skirts” can also be confused with the Hawaiian ti leaf skirt which resembles grass from a distance.
Many luaus include Maori dance, often a performance of haka – a vigorous, athletic war dance using grunts, facial expressions, and war cries.
The grand finale of most luau hula shows is the Samoan fire knife dance, a dramatic and exciting crowd pleaser. Originally the dancers used machetes or sharp knives with towels wrapped around their ends, which are set on fire. Though now preferring wooden or metal poles, the dancers twirl, toss and catch these fiery props. The dynamic, visually stunning action is perfect for a grand finale to most luau shows.
Many public hula performances in Hawaii do not include these other forms of Polynesian dance. Other than paying to attend a luau or a special fire knife competition, the most popular way to watch these Polynesian dancers is to hire them for a private show. Since fire knife dancing is so popular, many male hula dancers in Hawaii are also skilled Samoan fire dancers. Many professional hula dancers in Hawaii can also perform Tahitian dance on request.
Myth 10: Hawaiian hula dancing inspired the invention of the hula hoop.
Some of you may remember the hula hoops of your childhood. But a hula hoop is to hula what a platypus is to a quacking duck. They may seem similar on the surface, but they are completely different. The “hula hoop” had existed for centuries, long before Western explorers “discovered” Hawaii. Capitalizing on the glamour of the hula dance and alluding to the hip motion, which is only one aspect of hula dancing, a large-scale manufacturer decided to market their toy as a “hula hoop.” The name has stuck.
So, hula is more than just a sexy, glamorous dance. It has a rich history and legacy that go beyond the common stereotypes. This article is the tip of the iceberg. The next article will explore more aspects about Hawaiian hula dancing, including some surprising information.