Ka Wai Ola

The term “hula” is applied to all types of Hawaiian folk dances. There were hula found in only a single locality or known throughout a particular island. Others were danced throughout the islands using the same mele but might have been choreographed differently from place to place.

Hawai‘i’s traditional hula were very different from the modern dances of today. To our Hawaiian ancestors, hula was primarily religious, extolling the deities and great chiefs as descendants of the gods. In those days, the ho‘opa‘a (musicians) were men and never women, but the dancers were either men or women. To become a ho‘opa‘a, it was necessary to learn not only the mele, but the innumerable prayers associated with the hula. Ho‘opa‘a eventually became kahuna or teachers of the hula. A good hula master was found in every court.

Living in a hālau was very spiritual, and it was customary to offer prayers for inspiration to the gods of the specific dance, hence prayers of this type were innumerable for every class of dance.

Photo: Hawaiian hula dancers
Hawaiian hula dancers photographed in J. J. Wiliams’ photo studio, circa 1885. – Photo: J.J. Williams/Courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives

Our ancestors claimed that the first hula danced in these islands were taught by the gods themselves. When Pele and her family came, they covered the lands with lava, hence the first instrumental dance was the ‘ili‘ili (pebbles) dance. After that, trees grew up in the lava, and the kala‘au (stick) dances came into being. When vines crept forth, ipu (gourds) were fashioned into instruments and used by dancers. Animal dances came forth in honor of the ‘aumākua who possessed many forms. When La‘a arrived from Kahiki, the pahu (drum) dances and long bamboo (pū‘ili) dances were introduced. It was customary among dancers to hula in honor of the gods, then do the hula of the chiefs, from their name chants to the ma‘i (genital) chants; after these, they were free to do whatever chants that suited their fancy.

Quarreling, or criticizing the methods of another school was not allowed. “‘A‘ole i pau ka ‘ike ka hālau ho‘okahi” or “All knowledge was not taught in one school” is an ‘ōlelo no‘eau that speaks to breadth and respect of knowledge that hula practitioners were trained to recognize.

Hula was practiced by both chiefs and commoners alike, old and young. There were dances for all, including standing dances for the young and sitting dances for the aged. Hula contests were sometimes held, with dancers of one locality vying with those of another locality. Through this, many communities gained reputations of having excellent dancers.

One such story about these competitions was told by Mrs. Mary Kawena Pukui. When Queen Kapi‘olani was on Kaua‘i, a troupe of musicians and dancers were selected from each of the islands to dance to their individual mele lei. Each dancer would then dance to every mele, accompanied by the ipu beats of the musicians from Hawai‘i to Kaua‘i. The contest was anticipated with excitement and eagerness by all. On the day of the contest, a slim youth of Kaua‘i danced well in both parts of the competition. The queen was so delighted with his ability and gracefulness that she called him “Kā‘ilipu‘uwai” (Winner of Hearts). He bore this name up to his death many years later.

To all of the dancers participating in this year’s 2018 Merrie Monarch Festival, may the spirit and skill of Ka‘ilipu‘uwai be an inspiration to you all. ‘A‘a i ka hula, waiho ka hilahila i ka hale!