LOS ANGELES (CIRCA) -- When we say hula, what comes to mind? Beautiful women? Grass skirts? Fake-flower leis? A luau at a major hotel chain -- complete with a mai-tai in hand?
That’s the image that pop culture has painted of one of Hawaii’s national treasures. The problem is that image isn't really accurate. At least, it’s not the whole picture.
Certain aspects of hula and Hawaiian culture were cherry-picked and taken out of context for decades by Hollywood and pop culture movements, leaving the average person (read: non-native Hawaiian) to assume hula is just a surface-deep dance for tourists. Look at the movies "Blue Hawaii" and "Dance Girl Dance," for starters, but that doesn’t even venture into TV, commercials, costume stores … the list is endless.
(Meanwhile, if you're looking for a flick that sheds a more accurate light on hula and Hawaiian culture, check out Disney's "Moana.")
“Whenever people hear the word hula, they want to do the, 'Oooh…'" said Ryan Fuimaoro, a hula student, mimicking the standard hula hands as he talks.
“[They play on] whatever their version of Hollywood hula is, and it has a little bit of that, but really it's much more.”
He’s right. Hula is not just a dance, it’s a deeply spiritual practice. It’s also a moving meditation, a method of community building, and way of connecting the spiritual world to the physical. And, it carried the weight of Hawaii’s oral traditions. Native Hawaiians didn’t have a written language until missionaries arrived on the islands in the early 19th century, so hula chanting was how they documented their histories.
We wanted to do this cultural gem justice, so we went to two hula masters (or kumu, in Hawaiian) in northern California to understand what hula really is.
“Hula does offer discipline. It offers a sense of humility. It offers a sense of connection, and the understanding that community is not just the people around you, it's the people who've gone before you and the ones who are to come.”
Mahea Uchiyama runs the highly respected Center for International Dance school in Berkeley, California, and she says the main problem is that hula isn’t regarded as a spiritual practice.
“The sacredness of what we do isn't something that we wear on stage or even in public. It's all the stuff that leads up to going on stage and being in public. It's all of the chants that we do and how we create our regalia and the mindset that we're encouraged to have and how we regard each other and little things about how we treat our instruments and the things that we wear.
"That's the hula practice," she said. "What you see when we go on stage is kind of the icing on the cake.”
At Mahea’s school, women of all shapes, ages, sizes, and ethnicities were there, wearing the traditional fabric skirt and top for hula students (not, as it were, grass skirts, which is likely an adaptation born out of necessity. When hula started being performed outside of Hawaii, the standard leaves used to make the skirts were not available, so grass was an easy alternative). Mahea pounded on the ipu heke while her students chanted to precise, coordinated movements. They all had sweat dripping down their faces, which changed expressions from light smiles to steely determination, depending on what they were chanting.
The chanting, by the way, is the other part of the hula equation that has largely been glossed over in pop culture. Patrick Makuakāne is a kumu hula in San Francisco and runs the hula school Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu. He says that contrary to popular belief, hula is not about the movements.
“A lot of people are misinformed about Hula, thinking that a dance movement is the vehicle for the expression of a story. But, really it is the poetry of what we call mele, that is the main vehicle for expressing the story. The movement just sort of gives it dimension, or flavor, but the real story comes from the song, or the chants.”
Because of the meditative, grounding nature of hula, Makuakāne takes the hula practice into San Quentin state prison and teaches a handful of current inmates twice a week. And for some inmates, hula has become a saving grace of sorts.
Uchiyama says if there’s one thing she wants people to know about hula, it’s that it builds community.
“How to be in community with people, and true community, not just the people that you're touching and seeing but your ancestors, your descendants and all those trees and mountains that you're a part of.”
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