More than grass skirts…

By Jenny Des Jarlais


More than grass skirts, tiki torches, and tan girls shaking their hips, hula is a culture and way of life. Started by Polynesian settlers on the Hawaiian islands, the origins of hula are entrenched in ritual, religion and legend. For those who live the hula culture, its history, practice and performance are sacred and rich with life and meaning.

Throughout its two thousand year history, prayer and poetry have pervaded the hula performance. Called mele, meaning poetry, this integral part may take the form of song or chant and can refer to themes of important gods or people, creation and procreation, or praise for the earth. Accompanying mele, hula movement represents a second layer of interpretation.

The term hula refers to movement and gesture, and utilizes hand, arm and foot motions to both interpret the mele text as well as add rhythmic themes and motifs. For example, kaholo is a movement stepping side to side, and ‘uwehe means stepping in place then lifting and dropping the heels; either might be used as a repetitive rhythm that accompanies a certain phrase or chant. Changing the rhythm usually signifies the beginning of a new phrase or might fill in breaks between mele sections.

Currently there are many schools of hula that come from numerous lineages and teachers. Each kumu hula, or teacher and source, has developed a unique style and brings creative individuality to his or her choreography. Teachers undergo extensive study and practice in hopes of humbling themselves to the form and to their peers. A Hawaiian teaching states, E nana, e ho`olohe. E pa`a ka waha, e hana ka lima. This translates to, watch and listen, keep the mouth closed, and the hands busy; one learns by listening and observing.

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of In Dance.

Jenny Des Jarlais, a dancer in Makuakäne's troupe, is a full-time editor and a regular contributor to Nä Lei Hulu's annual newsletter.