Hawaiian Dance…A Cultural Dance of Beauty

hawaiian dancers

Hawaiian dance, Hula, is an ethnic dance form precious to the Hawaiian Islands. The beautiful flowing movements of the hands and hips are performed to Oli (chant) or Mele (music) It is a cultural dance that is handed down from generation to generation, and takes years to learn the authenticity of its correct cultural technique.

There are two main styles of Hawaiian dance, being Hula ‘Auana, which is a modern form and Hula Kahiko, an ancient form.

Ancient hula, was performed before the Western settlers came to Hawaii. It is accompanied by chant and traditional instruments. Modern hula, evolved under Western influence in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is called ‘Auana because it means “to wander” or “drift”. It is accompanied by song and western-influenced musical instruments such as a steel guitar, the ukulele and the double bass.

Styles of Hawaiian Dance, in recent years have developed sub categories. “Monarchy” includes any hulas which were composed and choreographed during the 19th century. During that time the influence of western culture created significant changes in the formal Hawaiian dance. “Ai Kahiko”, meaning “in the ancient style” are those dances choreographed in the 20th and 21st centuries that follow the styles of the ancient hula Kahiko.

There are two main positions of Hawaiian dance – either sitting, Noho dance, where sometimes Pu’ Illi (bamboo) sticks are used and also standing, Luna dance, where flowing hip movements and technical steps are the basis. Some dances utilize both forms.

To bring you to a bit of history, American missionaries, who arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1820, denounced the hula as a heathen dance. The newly Christianize royalty were urged to ban their native dance which they did. However, many of them continued to privately practice this beautiful dance form and by the 1850s, public Hawaiian dancing was regulated by a system of licensing.

Hawaiian dance had a gained recognition again during the reign of King Kalakaua in the years 1874 to 1891. He encouraged the traditional arts. With the Princess Lili’uokalaini who devoted herself to the old ways, as the patron of the ancients chants, she stressed the importance to revive the diminishing culture of their ancestors within the damaging influence of foreigners drastically changing the Hawaii Islands

Hawaiian dance changed though, in the early 20th century, as it was featured for the tourists to see, but a more traditional hula was maintained in small circles who wished to keep the dances scared . There was a renewed interest in Hawaiian dance in both traditional and modern, in the 1970s.

Hawaiian dance is taught in schools or groups called Halau. On the main land it is most often taught in dance schools. The teacher of hula is the Kumu Hula, where Kumu means teacher.

The dance form is a complex art form, and there are many hand motions used to represent the words in a song or chant. For example, hand movements can signify aspects of nature, such as the swaying of a tree in the breeze or a wave in the ocean, or a feeling or emotion, such as fondness or sadness.

Hawaiian technique is almost as involved as learning ballet. There is terminology of the feet, hands and hips to be learned and mastered. To consider this beautiful art form as part of an exercise regime would be insulting to any Hawaiian dancer.

Although, I learned Hawaiian dance on the mainland, I was fortunate to begin my Hawaiian dance training at 4 years of age by teachers who learned from the masters on the Islands. In turn, teaching it in my  own dance schools. In the 1980s, I began a luau based dance company with my students, in New Jersey, where we performed at luaus and ethnic based dance competitions. I have found a recent low in Hawaiian dance in the 2000’s in our area, where Hip Hop has taken the world by storm. I would love for Hawaiian dance to regain the recognition it once had in the local dance schools and to see it flourish once again on the east coast of the U.S.

One thought on “Hawaiian Dance…A Cultural Dance of Beauty

  1. Hello my name is Davida Williams, and I too am interested in ancient, traditional Hawaiian folk dance. I bought a DVD that teaches the basics as well as a traditional + modern Hawaiian folk music. I am so glad to have found that you teach this art and cultural heritage in the US and particularly the East Coast where we are tend to be behind in teaching other forms of cultural heritage. Please feel free to contact me. I would like to correspond with you further, if that’s okay with you.

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