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Hula survives and thrives

By Staff | Apr 29, 2010

Hand motions of this beautiful wahine illustrate the old expression, “Where the hands move lets the eyes follow.”

LAHAINA — The tall-masted sailing ships are gone. The king and queen are gone. The missionaries are gone. Numerous flowing streams are gone. The ancient temples are overgrown or gone. The taro patches are few and far between. What remains in full flower is hula, both the kahiko (ancient) hula and ‘auana (modern).

This is particularly true on Maui, with a Lahaina native son, Kumu Hula and recording artist Keali‘i Reichel (“Voices of Maui,” March 11) and his Halau Ke‘alaokamaile winning both the kahiko and ‘auana competitions for women and overall wahine honors at the annual Merrie Monarch Festival this month in Hilo. The Maui News called the wins “unprecedented.”

The old expression, “Where the hands move lets the eyes follow,” is as true today as when Hawaii “discoverer” Capt. James Cook was introduced to hula 232 years ago. The story of hula goes to the essence of Hawaiians past, present and future, and it has always fascinated beholders.

“At night, they feasted and the girls danced the lascivious hula-hula,” author, one time newspaperman and wit Mark Twain wrote 100 years ago.

His next long sentence is still frequently quoted on the subject even today: hula was performed “by a circle of girls with no raiment on them to speak of who went through an infinite variety of motions and figures without prompting and yet so true was their time and in such perfect concert did they move that when placed in a straight line hands, arms, bodies, limbs and heads waved, swayed, gesticulated, bowed, stooped, whirled, squirmed, twisted, and undulated as if was difficult to believe they were not moved in a body of some exquisite piece of mechanism.”

Before he met a violent end near Kona, Capt. Cook enjoyed hula, too. His surgeon reported, “The dancers assembled on the deck and formed a dance. They stuck their hands in their stomacks (sic) smartly and jumped all together at the same time. The dancers throw their arms about one part of the body into various positions, sometimes looking toward the sky overhead.”

The surgeon — whose services did Cook no good, since he was felled by one blow to the head — offered this description of drummer and dancer: “She performed  to an ipu drum — made of three gourds inserted into each other. (The drummer) beat the bottom of it against the ground and sung a song in slow time. The dancer threw her arms about and put her body into various positions, sometimes looking stedfastly (sic) to the sky.  She continued dancing a quarter of an hour, and we thought much superior to the Indians we had seen before.”

A botanist on the expedition of explorer George Vancouver in 1801 took time away from the flora to watch “a grand hula,” noting that the dancer “transverses the area with such measured pace and fascinating movement with such graceful attitudes and agility… The

harmony of her features were beyond the power of description.”

When missionaries looked askance at hula, Queen Ka‘ahumanu, widow of Kamehameha who was newly converted to Christianity, wanted the “heathen” dance banned. Her successors, knowing that hula was more about culture and less about swaying hips, pushed to keep the old traditions alive and fortunately revived it.

In ancient times, every ali‘i had a kumu hula to teach dances that honored chiefs, kept alive stories of Hawaiian history, told tales of Laka (the goddess of hula), and other deities and even extolled canoes.

Stories were first danced with chants and later meles (songs). They dealt with love, hate, jealousy, admiration and, much later, celebrated specific places such as Hanalei and Puamana.

Special instruments, many still used today, set the beat: the ipu heke‘ola (bottle gourd) and the pahu (large drum). Dozens of kinds of hula included the hula ho‘onana (danced for pleasure), hula pahua (rapid hula), hula papa‘ipu (standing hula) and hula Pele.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Broadway and Hollywood didn’t care about the history. Like Cook and Twain, they ignored male dancers to focus on wahine and their “Lovely Hula Hands,” as the song notes, “Graceful as the birds in motion, Gliding like the gulls over the ocean.”

Tourism authorities pushed the hula as a marketing gimmick, dressing wahine in grass skirts. The ancients wore kapa (tapa) skirts; grass skirts were unknown to Hawaiians before the tourism hype.

Noting that ancient dancers “for the most part did not bare their thighs,” one observer years back reported that “the truth of it is that real hula has little in common with the course imitations frequently served up to sightseers.”

Yet a new day was dawning: the Hawaiian Renaissance, with Hawaiians rediscovering the richness of their culture.

Today hula — both ancient and modern — survives and thrives, and these days far less frequently with tourist hype.

Columnist’s Notebook: Quotations of explorers come from a Bishop Museum article by Dorothy Barrere written in 1979. The book, “Voices of Maui,” is now in print production.