Dance Tidbits – Hula


I remember I was invited to a Sweet 16 birthday party when I was about 15 or 16 years old.  Most of the Sweet 16 parties (including my own) I do not remember.  But the reason I remember this one so vividly was, it had a Hawaiian theme, it was a Sweet 16 Luau and it had hula dancers! At Hawaiian luaus, the food is definitely different and interesting.  Aside from the traditional Sweet 16 cake, there was no other food I tasted at this party that was like anything else I’ve ever had before.  There were pineapples and coconuts, which are not that unusual, but I never tried either of them before that time.  There were several baked fish dishes with long rice, teriyaki beef and chicken and roasted pork with poi. What is poi you ask? It is the traditional Hawaiian staple.  It is a starch dish made by pounding boiled taro roots and mixing with water.  You mix it until it is smooth.  It can be eaten as a topping with fish and pork dishes.  It is also used in desserts.  In this case, it was served as a dessert and I remember really enjoying it.  I can’t remember much more because that was the first and last time I tried poi and it was a long time ago!

It was also the first time I had ever seen hula dancing being performed and I was mesmerized.  The way the dancers move their hips and also use their hands to tell a story was truly intriguing and their dancing was so smooth and easy flowing.  They even had all the girls at the party come up and try to learn the hula.  I’m here to tell you, as inviting as hula is to watch, it was a lot harder to do. Nevertheless, it was a great Sweet 16 party! A Hawaiian luau is definitely fun and a lot more exciting than your typical Sweet Sixteen birthday party and I will never forget that experience.

Everyone knows and has heard about hula dancing because Hawaii is so popular and that is the dance of the state. But do you know its origin or what it means?  The hula is a dance form accompanied by chant or song.  It originated in the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians who originally settled there.  What the hula portrays is the Hawaiian’s way of keeping a record of history through words and/or chants of a song in visual dance form. There are two categories of the hula. The first category is referred to as ancient hula dance. It is called Hula Kahiko and it is performed to praise and honor the ancient gods. No modern instrumentation is used.  The second category is called Hula ‘A Uana, which means modern hula.  As this dance evolved, more Western influences were integrated into the dance. This type of hula is accompanied by Western instruments like ukuleles, guitars, drums and falsetto songs.

In ancient history, hula was performed as a ritual for the amusement of the family or at feasts with no particular ceremony. Hula could also be performed as entertainment for chiefs of the day.  High chiefs were known to travel from one place to another within their territories.  Each location had to house, feed and entertain the chief and his entourage.  Hula performances were often a form of flattery to the chief.  All performances were to be completed without error, as it would be unlucky and disrespectful to the chief if the hula were not danced to total perfection.

Hula dancing is a complex art form. There are many hand motions used to represent the words in a song or chant and these may tell a story.  Hand movements can represent different elements in life.  Examples of hand gestures can range from gentle motions of nature such as trees, the ocean or a breeze to exploding dances of war exhibiting deep feelings and emotions. There are two main positions of a hula dance.  Either you can sit or stand.  Some dances utilize both forms.  There are only about six different moves in hula dancing.  The beauty of the dance is in the many different ways there are to interpret the dance moves.

Legend has it that the Hawaiian goddess Laka separated her hula dancers into two groups.  The first group was the Olapa (agile ones).  This group represented the younger generation of dancers; supposedly the ones with more energy.  The second group was known as Ho’o-paa (steadfast ones). This group represented the elders who sang and played musical instruments.  The musical instruments most typically used in Hawaiian song and dance are guitars, (pedal steel) ukulele and double bass.

It is traditional for both men and women to wear knee level skirts made of palm leaves and flower leis around their arms, lower legs and heads.  You can also see men wear the traditional malo or loincloth.  They may even wear bulky malo with many yards of tapa.  Women may wear longer wrapped skirts for lavish displays as well as more decorations in the way of necklaces, bracelets, anklets and many leis in the form of headpieces plus other various accessories.

Hula is taught in schools or groups called halou.  The teacher of hula is the Kumu hula.  Often there is a hierarchy in hula schools.  You start out with teachers, and then there are leaders and then helpers who all help the students.  It is taught with deep respect and ritualistic permission in the way of chants.  Only after entire completion of study and ritual, is the student ready to do hula dancing.

Who knows if you will ever get the chance to learn the hula in your dance career?  I hope you do, because it is a richly ancient dance with beautiful movements. However, if you ever get a chance to attend an authentic Hawaiian luau, do not miss the opportunity to go and taste some of that wonderful tasty food!

Thought Of The Week:

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”     –   Aldous Huxley


Recent Posts

See All


Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website