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Why you don’t know about real hula

Jun. 18, 2018
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One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was being asked to join a hula hālau. I was a junior in high school, sitting on a table after school, when the Kumu Hula (teacher of hula) approached me and broached the subject. I was flattered, flustered, and honestly, fucking stoked, but I had to turn him down—not because I didn’t want to dance. You see, in order for me to take the classes and continue the extracurriculars I knew would be necessary to attend a good film school, I wouldn’t be able to devote the sufficient time and commitment to my Kumu and my peers. But I should backtrack a bit, because Iʻm guessing the majority of you are quite confused.

For one, some of you may be wondering, “Wait, I thought that the author of this was a dude.” Yeah, you’d be right, or you wouldn’t assume either way. (In that case, ten points to you.) However, if you guessed the first part correctly, you might also be wondering, “I thought that hula was, like, a girl thing, with the flowy arms and the grass skirts and coconut bras. In what way is that an honor?

 …Firstly, brah, no.  Secondly, I’ll get to that in a sec, keep reading.

Itchy grass skirts and ridiculously small coconut bras are unfortunately common misconceptions at this point—both of which I hope to clear up just a wee bit. First off, hula is not just a dance to us. Not only is it a way to acknowledge and praise our gods, it’s a diverse way to tell stories and our history. Hula is highly structured and specific; a closed hand can tell a story completely divergent from that of an open hand. Because Hawaiians traditionally have had an oral history, one of the few ways we have communicated our past and beliefs was through hula, mele (songs), and oli (chants). We don’t usually show the real stuff to tourists, because when we do, they generally react in the same way. (Read: a drunk, Caucasian individual in a God-awful flower-print button-down flops his arms back and forth like a decapitated chicken, all while remarking “I’m doing the WHOlah.” No, you are showing you’ve got no moves, and you’re drunk.) I want to reassure whoever’s reading this that I know there are plenty of people who are actually interested in learning more about Hawaiian culture and beliefs, but it’s hard to weed out the good ones. The bad ones have a way of literally stealing everything, so visitors don’t get to see a lot of the really interesting stuff.  

Now back to the stereotypes. Ahh, the idea that hula is a feminine activity. I’ll admit, in the last hundred years it’s easy to see where that idea came from. Malihini (visitors or foreigners) are seldom able to see traditional Kāne (male) performances at resorts, though Hawaiians are more than happy to present the stereotype that was previously mentioned. The real hula is actually highly physical. The real thing will kill your legs, leaving you gasping and shweating bullets (no, shweating is not a typo.) In true hula, it’s easy to do the equivalent of hundreds of bodyweight squats in a single practice. Mix that with heavy cardio, highly technical movements focusing on flexibility, and outside weight training that many a hālau (school, in this context) require of their students. I’m not saying the girls can’t do it, because they go just as hard as the men, but the idea of hula being this very easy activity is laughable. However, the masculinity doesn’t just stop with the physical side of hula.

The roots of hula are pretty much as masculine as you can get. Hula was used as an early training method for Koa (warriors) chosen by the Aliʻi (ruler, heavenly one) or the ʻŌlohe, a hairless master of Lua, who usually was in charge of training his Aliʻi’s warriors. Lua is a traditional Hawaiian martial art created to quickly and efficiently kill your enemy. Itʻs not like other martial arts which have the prime motivator of self-defense—Lua was designed to kill. Many of the staple moves used in hula to this day are derived from traditional Lua moves. 

While the tradition of selecting warriors from the best male hula dancers has definitely changed (Lua is now highly secretive due to U.S. influence), the original idea is still there. It nearly died out due to the banning of hula during a good chunk of the 1800s and being severely frowned upon during the early 1900s, but the masculine hula dancer has resurfaced since the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s and ‘80s. Trust me, when the boys go up on the stage during Merrie Monarch (the Super Bowl of hula events and a huge cultural event that takes place every May), you can hear the girls screaming.

Speaking of girls, let’s talk about the ‘hula girl’ image. You know which one I’m talking about—the scantily clad native who sways her hips and waves her arms to entertain her watchers. That idea has been around for a long time, even though it was only when American troops were stationed here during WWII that Hawaii’s main economy started to switch to tourism. Hawaii had been a stopping point in the Pacific for thousands of years. Our mele, oli, and especially our hula were famed across the Pacific. Our hula was known to entrance many a visiting chief and chiefess. After Captain Cook “discovered” Hawaii, whalers, sandalwood traders, and dignitaries began to arrive on the island and write in their diaries about the native girls and their hula. However, when the Calvinists showed up in 1820, they were astounded. (To be fair, we Hawaiians went naked or half-naked a lot.) 

To be clear, I’m not apologizing for our native garb—I’m saying that I get why those bible thumpers got flustered and thought we were working with the devil. But it’s hot on the island, so we used kapa (a fabric made primarily from the pounding and drying of the mulberry plant) for our garments, which pretty much disintegrates in water. We didn’t have a problem with it, but our au naturel state did get us some really bad PR. Especially when it came to hula. The Calvinists were quick to paint our sacred dancing and storytelling as simply a way to seduce poor, unsuspecting white men on behalf of Lucifer. 

After Western garb was forced on the Hawaiian people, the majority of the population adopted the fashions of the time, which is a personal hell, since it’s hot as hell in jeans back home. 70 degrees is considered a somewhat cold day, 60 is considered ungodly, and during the rare occasion that it dips into the 50s I’ve had friends come to school in ski gear. Yet, many worked, slept, and even danced hula in jeans. 

Basically, the long-winded point I’m trying to make here is that the idea of the seductress in her grass skirt and coconut bra didn’t traditionally take place. Yes, hula can be used to seduce (and it works 12/10 times on me), but that wasn’t usually the case. It was easier for the sailors, missionaries, and visitors to say that the “island witch” was casting spells on them than to admit that they were attracted to “savages.” They looked down on our native garb, because obviously they were against #FreeTheNipple and our clearly superior beach bodies. It was easy for them to generalize our garb as just plants and loincloths, because for the most part they basked in ignorance. Gathering the plants and other necessary materials to perform proper hula can take months of work, as the process includes hunting down rare vines like maile (a rare and sweet smelling plant that is most desired for leis) and pounding out and dying kapa (a fabric acquired through the pounding and drying of the mulberry plant). Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that, and instead of learning, they simply laugh and assume. 

So, when the tourism started to pick up, people wanted a taste of the “stupid brown people’s” culture. Local businessmen, predominantly non-Hawaiians, then started to capitalize commercially on Hawaiian culture, and they were no longer concerned about authenticity. They chose, for the most part, cheap plastic uniforms and leis for girls who had not actually been trained in hula. It’s true, sometimes the skirts of our dancers are made from native grasses. Sometimes. But the fauna and materials that we use in our hula are specifically chosen by the Kumu Hula (hula teacher) for more than aesthetic purposes. The original intention of hula was to demonstrate dedication to the gods. Just like many other religious actions, the garments worn while dancing hula are extremely specific. A slight change in protocol could easily desecrate or belittle the sacred act that is being performed. Sure, a lot of those beliefs aren’t as taken as seriously now. However, there are many within the Hawaiian community that believe in one form or another of the old ways. It might be small, like not carrying pork over the pali (usually translated to cliff, but in this case a specific highway on Oahu) or Saddle Road on the Big Island so as to not offend madam Pele (the fire and lava goddess). Those who still believe in many of the old practices are generally those who dance hula. When someone does hula without the proper understanding, training, or mindset as a joke, it’s more than just doing a dance that they saw in Lilo & Stitch—it’s openly desecrating a religious and cultural practice that many of us Hawaiians hold very close to our hearts. It’s the equivalent of someone downing a bottle of wine while eating a brownie and calling it communion.

So you can imagine that, when the ‘hula girl outfit’ was created by businessmen in order to capitalize commercially on a culture of which they were not a part, it did not go well for those whose culture was being appropriated. Not only was it racially offensive, but it also helped to further create ideas of orientalism and mystery around a highly modern and diverse culture. Basically, it made it so that even if a Hawaiian had a PhD in business, dressed in a Gucci every day, and had no real cultural ties to old traditions, they would still be asked if they knew any hula.

I mean, think of the hula girl image from a practical view. I’m not a girl, but if I was, I don’t think I would enjoy squeezing myself into two hard, fibrous containers and a scratchy skirt while dancing. It's uncomfortable and impractical, and we just don’t do it as a culture. Sure, many of the grasses that we do use can sometimes be a little scratchy, but efforts are made to reduce discomfort and the majority of dancers do wear something underneath. We are an innovative people that does try our best to accept innovation and efficiency. 

So every time someone tells me to relax about the issue of hula’s reputation, I have to take a deep breath. Because every time an outsider comes around and tries to correct me about my culture, there is a risk of my three-year-old niece overhearing and being misinformed on her own culture. My generation is the first one in a hundred years that has been raised on the idea that we should be proud of our culture. My great grandfather’s generation watched as their culture was outlawed and banned, their ancestral homes ripped from them. My grandfather was beaten at school for speaking our language. It is only because of the previous generations rebelling against what they were told that I’m even able to write this article. So, I refuse to let ignorant individuals feed the next generation misinformation that was garnered from The Huffington Post and what they heard from their cousin who went to UH.  

Getting back to my original story, at my school everybody knew that it was a huge honor to be asked to join the hālau, especially as a boy. Not only was it something that helped to continue our culture and looked great on college resumes, but everybody knew that the Kumu only asked you to dance if he saw you as a fit ambassador for our community as a whole. Also, as an ambassador, you were deemed hot. I’m not joking—it said something about your looks if you were asked to join. Let me explain.

Hula dancers travel constantly on behalf of my school as cultural ambassadors. Not to be crass, but when presenting an image of a marginalized people you want to stack the deck. We only really get one shot at an introduction, and from past history, we know it only really takes one bad interaction for negative stereotypes to take root. You show up with what some would describe “less attractive” kanaka, and people tend to focus on that. If you traveled with the hālau (literally translated to long house, but in more modern times can also be used to reference you and your fellow hula performers), you understood there was a great deal of responsibility, that your pretty looks and free trip were the product of a desire to present your people well.

So, if you’re still reading this, you’ve learned something about Hawaiian culture and more specifically, about hula. I hope I haven’t painted the picture that hula is only for Hawaiians. We love sharing real hula with people. Even at my school, if you have a passion for hula, you are welcome to join the hālau. If you’re interested in seeing that, convince your parents to go to Merrie Monarch next year. It’s on the Big Island, also known as Hawaii, which just experienced that huge lava eruption. Not only can you go to watch the performances and absorb more Hawaiian culture in a couple of days than most do in their entire life, but you also will help to rebuild an economy that’s been devastated by recent events. Below, I’ve listed some links to my favorite performances from over the years as well as some other helpful videos if you’d like to check them out. So for now, a hui hou mālama pono and mahalo nui loa. 

Hula Performances

2009 Merrie Monarch Men Kahiko Winners

Kamehameha Song Contest 2016 - Ho'ike Performance

Merrie Monarch 2009 - Halau Hula  O Hokulani

2017 Merrie Monarch Festival Highlights

Nicole Taniguchi Kahiko - 2009 Merrie Monarch

Merrie Monarch 2016 - Kahiko Wanine

Miss Aloha 2001 Natasha Oda Merrie Monarch