Hula, beyond the coconut bra!
Part two of two
When King Kamehameha I died, his son and heir to the throne, Liholiho Kamehameha II, was a young, weak-willed, 24-year -old. With incredible boldness, Queen Ka’ahumanu, the favorite wife of newly deceased Kamehameha I, proclaimed that she was to share the reign with Liholiho, who did not object. Ka’ahumanu was intelligent, assertive, and craved power at a time when Hawaiian women were second class citizens with endless kapus which severely handicapped a smart, ambitious queen.
Ten days had passed since the death of King Kamehameha I, and kapu had not been reinstated. The Queen Regent Ka’ahumanu and Kamehameha II’s mother, Keopuolani, (King Kamehameha I had five wives), convinced Kamehameha II to sit and eat with the women at a public banquet. The astonished Hawaiians, and visiting foreigners, saw him sit and eat with the women, breaking one of the most serious kapu. He proclaimed ‘ai noa, or “free eating”, and amazingly was not struck down by angry gods. At that precise moment the entire kapu system lost its power.
With Kamehameha II’s failure to reinstate kapu as the new king, coupled with his sanctioned mixing of sexes at the banquet, Hawaiian society was in upheaval and “ripe for conversion” when the Puritanical Christian missionaries, with their own rigid “kapu” system, touched the sand just six months later.
Not wanting to give up drinking, or four of his five wives, Kamehameha II did not convert to Christianity, but Queen Regent Ka’ahumanu did wholeheartedly. After ten more years of considerable missionary influence, in 1830, it was Queen Regent Ka’ahumanu who issued an edict banning public hula performances, among other “heathen” practices. The law was widely ignored in the rural populations and when Ka’ahumanu died two years later, the ban, though not formally rescinded, was essentially forgotten. But in the years following, political pressure from the Hawaiian Evangelical Society sought to destroy the “lascivious” hula through expensive licensing laws, penal punishment, and performance prohibitions outside of Honolulu. Unable to completely suppress hula, they were successful in insisting female dancers wear high neck gowns with long sleeves. The law was formally repealed in 1896, three years after the overthrow of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani.
Although several monarchs attempted to keep hula alive in spite of the missionaries, it was King David Kalakaua, reigning from 1874 to1891, also known as the “merry monarch”, who successfully encouraged the return of traditional Hawaiian cultural arts, evidenced by the 262 hula performances at his coronation, 30 of which were of the hula ku’i, a new style with Hawaiian poetry, dance movements, and costumes combined with the traditional chants accompanied by the ipu (gourd drum).
Hula continued to change in the following decades, with kahiko hula almost extinguished. The later part of the 19th century saw the mele hula (poetry with dance) accompanied by the Portuguese braguinha (ukulele) and the Spanish vaqueros’ guitar. Along with the Hawaiian slack key and steel guitar, these instruments provide the signature melodies that accompany the more “modern” hula – auana hula.
Auana hula, with its guitar and ukulele accompaniment has more hip sway and poetic hand movements, along with English lyrics, although Hawaiian lyrics are returning in popularity. In hula, kahiko and auana, the hands, face, body movements, feet and voice of the dancer all play a vital part in the message of the dance. Hand motions mimic the swaying coconut trees, the rolling seas, waves, the moon, etc. A good hula dancer watches her hands as they tell the story, not the audience, though newer auana hula will engage more audience eye contact.
Costuming for hula is important. Pa’u skirts, originally made of bark cloth, were worn by both men and women. Now pa’u skirts are also made of woven cloth. Women wear tops, usually made of woven cloth. Lei encircle necks and heads, while kupe’e decorate wrists and ankles. Both are made of plants, flowers, shells, feathers, etc. depending on the deity honored in the dance. Some kupe’e materials, i.e., shells, create sounds to enhance the dance. The colors and patterns of the costumes also convey information on the deity honored.
After early Hollywood’s fantasy with Hawaii, and it’s degradation of the spirituality of hula in general (what male came up with coconut bras?), a resurgence of Hawaiian pride and culture saw a return of kahiko hula in the 1960s.
In honor of King Kalakaua and to showcase Hawaiian hula – both kahiko and auana- the Merrie Monarch Festival premiered in 1964. This week-long, invitation only, competition begins annually on Easter Sunday. Contestants are required to present judges with fact sheets detailing their research and reason for their chosen hula, as well as wear costumes fitting the time period portrayed in the chant or dance.
Hula has always been a beautiful dance, but my time spent researching its origins has brought me, a haole (foreign, non-Hawaiian) girl, a richer, deeper, understanding of Hawaiian history and culture. As a non-Hawaiian haumana, I am feeling the story through the music or chant; “telling” the story through my hands and body; and above all, allowing myself a connection to a proud, ancient, beautiful, warrior society that honored the earth, the ocean, and all that make our one world.
‘A’ohe I pau ka ‘ike I ka halau ho’okahi
(All knowledge is not contained in only one school)
Locally, the halau hula, Na Mele O Ke Kai (Songs of the Sea), holds classes for beginners to advanced students. More information at www.hulaslo.org