The Hula Movement

The ancient Hawaiian art is catching on nationwide—even worldwide.


In the auditorium of an elementary school on San Francisco's Potrero Hill hula classes begin not so much with a bang as with a BOOM BOOM: the sound of two full-palm slaps on the side of a large hourglass-shaped Hawaiian gourd.

Sitting on the stage, his muscular legs encircling the gourd, is Patrick Makuakane, who is half Hawaiian and has a shock of dark hair, obsidian eyes, and a baritone voice. Makuakane spends his days as a personal trainer at the nearby World Gym, but in the evenings he is a kumu hula. In Hawaiian the term literally means "dance teacher," but its connotations are more nearly those of "guru." Facing him tonight are thirty-odd students, in five staggered rows, ranging in age from eight to eighty. The women wear sweatshirts and gathered cotton skirts, the men T-shirts and baggy shorts. Together, his students present the multicultural face of mainland hula. Among them are Luisa, a wiry Latina in a gray-blue baseball cap with the Nike logo; U'ilani, a native Hawaiian with striking cheekbones, a cascade of thick black hair, and tailored pants poking out below her hibiscus-yellow skirt; Calvin, a fine-boned Japanese violin player who chants perfectly in key; and this writer, a haole, or Caucasian, who grew up in Hawaii but has lived in California for twenty-one years.

Known as the Monday Night Class, we are part of Makuakane's halau hula, or traditional school of dance, with 160 members from all over northern California. My halau is one of dozens in the Bay Area, and one of hundreds on the mainland. The ancient art of Hawaiian dance is stepping far beyond its origins in the Pacific archipelago.

"We're seeing a phenomenal growth in halau, not just in California but farther east—in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Colorado, Arizona," says Amy Ku'uleialoha Stillman, an associate professor of music and culture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the director of its Asian/Pacific American Studies program. According to a list at the Hawaiian cultural Web site, people in thirty-four American states and six countries are dancing the hula. In Hawaii itself no fewer than eighty-nine halau are thriving.

Things Hawaiian seem to satisfy many appetites these days. In certain cool circles on and near the West Coast men are wearing more Hawaiian shirts than basic black. The playlists of radio stations nationwide include the late singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's gentle medley of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," for which he accompanied himself simply on a ukulele. Kamakawiwo'ole, whose 1993 album Facing Future continues to sell smartly and is by now one of the best-selling Hawaiian albums of all time, was featured on the soundtracks of Meet Joe Black and Finding Forrester. Hula may carry a similar appeal.

Indeed, a year ago this July almost 1,500 hula aficionados gathered on the Big Island of Hawaii for a conference featuring workshops on hula history, Hawaiian genealogy, ancient chants, and the relationship of hula to the land. The wide reach of hula surprised even the conference's organizers. Kekuhi Kanahele, the executive director of the Edith Kanaka'ole Foundation, which co-sponsored the event, told me, "We began to realize the worldwide extent of hula when we received a registration from Egypt. Then the registrations kept coming—from Iran, Japan, Mexico, and all over the United States."

Named for the late hula icon Edith Kanaka'ole, an esteemed chanter and Hawaiian-language professor (and Kekuhi Kanahele's grandmother), the foundation was started in 1990 by Kanaka'ole's daughters Pualani and Nalani. In 1993 the sisters received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for perpetuating the ancient art of hula through their school, Halau O Kekuhi. They have also written, choreographed, and performed in the first hula opera, Holo Mai Pele, which brought traditional hula to a national audience last October, when it aired as part of the PBS Great Performances series.

Holo Mai Pele makes clear how little real hula resembles the stereotype shown in Hollywood films like Blue Hawaii and Waikiki Wedding, wherein hula is a sweet, somewhat simple-minded dance performed by nubile Polynesians in grass skirts. Real hula is often powerful and provocative. The dance originated, according to one ancient myth, when the goddess Hi'iaka danced to appease her fiery sister Pele, the goddess of the volcano. In ancient hula there were, of course, no guitars or ukuleles—only percussive instruments like sharkskin drums, feather-decorated gourds, bamboo stamping tubes, split-bamboo rattles, and stone castanets. Gesture was secondary to chanted poetry.

In pre-contact Hawaiian society, hula was the history book of a people without a written language. Hula chants were the sacred text maintaining the relationship between gods and mortals, heralding chiefs, celebrating sex and procreation, and venerating the subtleties of the natural world—the tumbling of waterfalls, the many faces of the moon, the myriad mists and rains of the tropics.

Calvinist missionaries arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1820 and, with the support of converted chiefs, denounced hula as heathen. Soon it was banned. Then, in the 1870s, hula found its savior. "Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people," King David Kalakaua proclaimed. Kalakaua, known as the "Merrie Monarch," revived the dance, and soon ancient elements of poetry and chant were being combined with new instruments and costumes.

For a time modernization suited hula little better than the missionaries had. By 1959, when Hawaii became a state, hula—along with traditional methods of fishing, the slack-key guitar, and the Hawaiian language—was on the wane. In the early 1970s, though, a by now celebrated Hawaiian cultural renaissance swept the islands, fueled by a potent combination of anti-development anger and fierce ethnic pride. The Merrie Monarch Festival, held annually in Hilo, had started promoting the art of hula in 1964, and over time the festival grew into a blockbuster event. (Last year almost 5,000 people attended.) The King Kamehameha Hula Competition, in Honolulu, began drawing halau from the U.S. mainland. Since 1992 the World Invitational Hula Festival, in the outdoor Waikiki Shell, has helped hula competition go global.

Not all off-island halau practice the strict, esoteric, and complex dance perpetuated by the likes of the Kanaka'ole sisters, but Amy Ku'uleialoha Stillman and others note the seriousness of many of the newer schools. "What's catching islanders off guard is the quality of the hula practiced on the mainland," Stillman told me earlier this year. "These are strong groups. They're serious contenders."

One of the first mainland halau to win a prize in an island competition, fifteen years ago, is run by Mahealani Uchiyama, a forty-four-year-old African-American woman who started taking hula classes in Washington, D.C., at the age of thirteen. "After nine years of ballet," she told me recently, "it had become clear to me that Western dance would offer few opportunities to a tall black woman. So I explored other traditions. Hula was the one that stuck."

Uchiyama moved to Honolulu in the mid-1970s to attend the University of Hawaii and stayed long enough to learn the language, pick up a Hawaiian given name (which refers to the second night of the full moon), and marry a Japanese-American fellow student. "Hula always resonated deeply for me," Uchiyama said. "It's as if I was born into it, even if I wasn't. I love the challenge—physically, psychologically, intellectually."

She moved to California in 1982, began an apprenticeship with a kumu hula in Hayward shortly thereafter, and in 1984 founded her own company in Berkeley. Nowadays, in a barnlike loft tucked between the Amtrak rails and the Magic Gardens nursery, this dreadlocked kumu with graceful, crane-like limbs teaches Hawaiian and Tahitian dance, and the Hawaiian language as well, to more than a hundred students.

Patrick Makuakane, my kumu, began his career as a teenager dancing in Waikiki hotels and performed at Carnegie Hall in 1990, when he was twenty-nine. His professional troupe of forty men and women (the Sunday Class) performs what he calls hula mua ("progressive hula"), a syncretism of traditional movements with nontraditional music—Roberta Flack, say, or Dead Can Dance. Some of his hulas recount ancient legends; others make modern political points.

In the Monday Night Class, however, Makuakane hews to tradition, passing on to students only time-honored styles of dance: hula kahiko, with its percussive, poetic chants honoring the powerful gods and legends of pre-contact Hawaii, andhula 'auana, the fluid, graceful dance done to the accompaniment of guitars and ukuleles and playfully celebrating the secular world. "Hula is life," Makuakane is fond of saying. "It expresses everything we see, feel, hear, smell, taste, and touch."

It is this all-encompassing quality that gives hula the edge over more banal movement classes—aerobics, for example, or Jazzercise. Like these, hula is serious exercise: while your quads, hams, glutes, and hip extensors stretch and strain, your arms never stop moving. And your heart can really get pumping on some of the fast hulas that remain staples in the repertoire.

But hula works the heart in other ways, too. The recently re-released CD Party Hulas, by the legendary singer Genoa Keawe, is filled with sassy songs praising everything from the glory of a ship at sail to the dainty cheeks of a beloved. There's often more to the lyrics than the innocuous titles imply. "Noho Paipai" ("Rocking Chair Hula") is more about erotic mischief than about soothing maternal love.

Other dances are lyrical and poetic. "He Po Lani Makamae" wonders at the beauty of a newborn child seen in the light of the full moon. One of the oldest dances, "Kaulilua," compares a mountain on Kauai to a woman. "Doubly cold is Mount Wai'ale'ale," it begins in recondite poetry. "Her eyes peer down on the stunted lehua tree."

How can an art form so deeply Hawaiian appeal to so many mainlanders, some of whom are barely familiar with the islands? "No other dance form—or even yoga—makes me feel as spiritually and emotionally full," my classmate Alicia Lo told me. Lo grew up doing ribbon dancing at Chinese school, spent her evenings frequenting nightclubs when she attended the University of California at Berkeley, and as a young adult competed as a Latin ballroom dancer.

After the glitziness of ballroom competition, with its contrived efforts to impress judges, Lo found hula "genuine, full of real feeling." And, she told me, it gave her a sense of belonging. "I have always struggled over fitting into this world, finding a connection with others. I feel alone a lot in life—like a black sheep. But dancing in line, sensing and watching each other, we are 'all for one and one for all.' Hawaiian people really accept you—even if you're not Hawaiian. Hula makes me feel part of something larger than myself."


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