Hula is so much more than dancing and singing. It is an intricate and layered way of telling stories and preserving culture and traditions.
Hula has been used by Hawaiians as a way to record their history and pass it along to future generations. It is used in ritual and ceremony and it is used for fertility and strengthening the Hawaiian nation.
Hula is part of an oral tradition in Hawai’i. In the beginning, when the first Polynesian came to settle in Hawai’i, there was no writing, so history and culture were passed down through hula (dance), mele (song) and oli (chanting).
In Hawaiian mythology, Laka is the goddess of Hula. The name Laka means “gentle” and “to attract”. It is said she created Hula on the island of Moloka’i, though some mythology suggests that Hi’iakaikapoliopele, the sister of Pele – The Volcano Goddess, discovered and learned Hula from Hopoe. It is told she saw Hopoe, “The Dancing Stone”, dancing in the forest with the lehua blossoms and she asked to learn it.
Even with the different creation stories, Laka is considered the Goddess of Hula and is honored as such. The island of Kaua’i is the home to an ancient Heiau dedicated to her in the city of Haena.
In addition to being the Goddess of Hula, Laka is also known as the Goddess of the Forest and thought of as the light or energy that nourishes plant life. There are some plants whose leaves and flowers are said to be imbued strongly with this energy and you see these in Lei making and in some traditional hula dances.
In times of old, every chief had a court of hula dancers who had oli for conveying genealogy, mythology, history, ceremony, honoring and for telling of important events. Oli was used for announcing oneself, for asking permission to go onto someone’s land, to tell where you are from and what your intentions are.
Although it’s popular entertainment as part of touristy luaus, this is not a representation of the richness and depth of the hula tradition. In contrast to this modern hula, Hawaii’s Merrie Monarch Festival is a yearly gathering dedicated to preserving the tradition of hula in its fullness. Hula’s purpose today, as it was before, is a means to convey the stories of Hawaii, to honor, bless & celebrate, and to give of one’s heart for the abundance of others and in spiritual connection.
Hula has always been a way to convey history, happenings and important cultural events in lieu of written word. It keeps the stories alive and preserves the depth of their meaning as each step, movement, gesture and word is passed down with care.
Many events, projects, undertakings and the honoring of a great person include hula as a ceremonial blessing. The birth of a child, bringing healing to the sick and making an offering to the Gods, Goddesses and ancestors are also times when hula brings the intention and loving energy of the dancer’s heart to bear.
Hula is a means to increase fertility of the ʻāina (land), the community and the nation of Hawai’i. Hula can be part of honoring a season’s crops and the agricultural abundance of an area. It can be offered to educate the children on the myths, legends and history of their culture and to teach them community values that will ensure a healthy and prosperous nation. It can help grow a sense of connection amongst the people and a pride in the Hawaiian culture.
Hula has been critical in preserving the integrity of Hawai’i after the missionaries forbid it’s practice, along with the Hawaiian language and other cultural and religious practices for many decades. Hula was maintained and passed down through an underground network and resurfaced at the coronation of King David Kalākaua. King David and his queen, Kapiʻolani, lived by the motto, “Hoʻoūlu Lāhui,” Increase the Nation. Their dedication revived many aspects of Hawaiian culture including the arts, medicine, music and hula. The King relied on the kūpuna (wise elders) and the culture that was chronicled in hula to help renew a sense of dignity in the nation and to ensure future generations would enjoy a robust Hawaiin heritage.
Without hula, much of that heritage would be lost. Its preservation and resurrection ensured that the unique traditions of the Hawaiian people are once again able to be shared and flourish. It also helped maintain the spiritual connection of the people to themselves, to the ʻāina, to their ‘ohana (family) and to the divine.
The role of tourism in the economy of Hawaii has spread the awareness of hula as an entertainment, but it rarely conveys the depth of what it is. Traditional hula is the expression of one’s heart and soul. It is a spiritual practice that can carry powerful energies and intentions.
The story of the dancing stone must be kept on record for the lovers of Hawaiian folk-lore. It is part of the origin story for Hula.
There was a stone of balanced rock that lived by the sea near the small town of Keauu on the Big Island of Hawaii. The natives of long ago called this stone Hopoe as it was said Hopoe was changed into this stone by a flood of lava sent from Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Volcanoes.
Hopoe, the graceful dancer of Puna who taught Hiiaka, the youngest sister of Pele, how to dance, was covered in a flood of lava, from a jealous and angry Pele, preserving her in a perpetual dance by the seashore.
It is said Hopoe was very graceful and knew all the dances of the ancient people. Hour after hour she taught Hiiaka the oldest hulas (dances) known among the Hawaiians until Hiiaka excelled in all beautiful motions of the human form. Hopoe also taught Hiiaka how to make leis (wreaths) from the most fragrant and splendid flowers.
Some of the native legends say that Pele had slept near the seashore where she had commenced to build a volcanic home for herself and her sisters, and that she had asked her sister Hiiaka to go and retrieve her lover Lohiau from Kauai. While Hiiaka agreed to do so, she asked that her friend Hopoe be spared any of Pele’s jealous wrath while she was on her journey. Pele initially agreed, and while longing for the coming of her lover Lohiau she dug feverishly, throwing up hills, sending out lava flows, and digging some of the many pit craters which are famous in the district of Puna while sparing the area where Hopoe lived.
After more time passed, in a fit of anger, Pele was unable to honor her agreement not to harm Hopoe and the goddess of fire sent a torrent of lava down toward the seashore where Hopoe lived and engulfed her within it. Pele changed Hopoe into a great block of lava and balanced it on the seashore. Thus it is said, Hopoe was able to dance when the winds blew or the earth shook or some human hand touched her and disturbed her delicate poise. It is said that for centuries she has been the dancing stone of Puna.
You can read the full version of this story here.
If you want to discover more about Hula and perhaps learn the basics from an authentic Hawaiian source, visit at ikumuhula.com. I Kumu is run by Kau`i Dalire. Born into a well-regarded hula dancing family from the Windward side of O’ahu, Hawai’i, Dalire’s mother, Aloha Dalire, was the winner of the very first Miss Hula competition in the Merrie Monarch festival, often referred to as the “Super Bowl” of hula. In time, Dalire, as well her two sisters would follow in their Mother’s footsteps and capture the title as well, making Hawai’i history.