Stories from the Hearth

Hawaiian Hula Dancers - TWB S2 E1

Episode Summary

When Polynesians first settled the isolated Hawaiian Islands, they transformed traditional dancing into Hula, which almost all of us recognise in some form, even to this day. Except, Hula isn't just a dance, it is a complex, beautiful, and culturally important form of storytelling.

Episode Notes

When Polynesians first settled the isolated Hawaiian Islands, they transformed traditional dancing into Hula, which almost all of us recognise in some form, even to this day. Except, Hula isn't just a dance, it is a complex, beautiful, and culturally important form of storytelling.

Welcome to The Wandering Bard, a bonus historical series on Stories from the Hearth examining the history of storytelling. This month’s episode is the first in a new season asking "Who are the storytellers?" Today we examine Hawaiian hula dancers.

The next story episode from Stories from the Hearth is out on 25th July. Next month's Wandering Bard bonus episode will take a look at the Griot storytellers of West Africa.

The aim of Stories from the Hearth is to rekindle its listeners' love for the ancient art of storytelling (and story-listening), and to bring some small escapism to the frantic energies of the modern world.

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Episode Transcription

Welcome to The Wandering Bard, a bonus series on Stories from the Hearth. This month’s episode is the first in a new season asking Who are the storytellers?, and today’s answer is: Hula dancers.

What do you think of, when you think of Hula?

I know that before I started researching it for this podcast, the Hula I tended to think of was that in which Hawaiian dancers performed gentle, meaningless dances in floating skirts of leaf and flower necklaces, to the tune of Western-influenced musical instruments like the guitar and ‘ukelele. This, however, is but one form of Hula. It is called Hula ‘Auana (‘auana meaning “to wander” or “to drift”), and was only developed in the 19th and 20th centuries under Western influence. Today, some Hawaiians refer to Hula ‘Auana as “Monarchy” hula, referring to the influence of the empires which occupied the Hawaiian Islands during the centuries in which these particular Hula were written and choreographed.

But there is a much older, much more ancient form of Hula, known as Hula Kahiko. Hula Kahiko is dance accompanied not by music, but by chants and by story. Hula Kahiko, including modern Hula Ai Kahiko (or Hula “in the ancient style”), is one of the world’s most interesting forms of storytelling.

To put it most simply, Hula is a sacred art form believed to have been created by either the volcano goddess Pele, or the goddess Laka. The dance is used to give visual depth, and to deepen the meaning of stories told orally in mele and oli (songs and chants). 

However, there is nothing simple about Hula Kahiko. Hula Kahiko is so sacred that its performers trained for many years to perfect their art. With many hundreds of dance moves to memorise and perfect – each one meaning something different in relation to the stories told – it took an incredible amount of practice before a dancer could even begin performing in public. Even then, the slightest error in a performance was deemed to bring back luck and dishonour, even to invalidate the entire Hula, if it was one given in dedication to, or honouring a Hawaiian goddess, god, or chieftain. 

But not all Hula Kahiko performances told serious stories. The mele and oli which accompanied them could be used for religious prayer, sure, but so too could they be used to teach you about your genealogy, about farming practices, the geology of your island; they could teach you cultural or moral lessons, and most importantly, they could tell you (and thus preserve) the history of your people. There were songs for prayer, birth, naming, sex and genitalia, grief and mourning, songs for games, love, and everyday exclamations. Performances might be given spontaneously and frivolously, for the amusement of others, or in great seriousness, as an offering to the gods. 

Hula is intricately choreographed, utilising an infinite combination of eye movements, and movements in the hands, wrists, hips, legs and feet, with the basic library of feet and hip movements including the kaholo, ka’o, kawelu, hela, ‘uwehe, and ‘ami. But it is the movements of the hands, which truly tell the story. So important is the interaction between hands and feet that Hula dancers watch their hands at all times, rather than the audience.

Hand movements do many things in Hula storytelling. They can visualise the chanted story, painting a picture of it with literal interpretations of the words. Think for example of hand movements meaning ‘ocean waves’, ‘rising sun’, ‘body, and ‘flower’. But so too can they give life to more conceptual ideas, such as ‘love’, ‘give’, and ‘aloha’. These are but a proverbial drop in the ocean compared to the full range of ideas and images which Hula can express and translate. 

Whether we like to watch ballet or breakdancing, our emotions are aroused or quieted, attacked or calmed by the graceful movements of the dancers, whose bodily connection to the music behind them conveys the meaning of their story. Well, the same goes for the Polynesian Hula, Mele, and Oli storytellers of the Hawaiian Islands. Whilst the story chants called oli could be performed without the dance of hula, it was only when the two were combined that the audience was truly engaged; only then that the story truly came to life; only then that the histories folded into those stories could most assuredly be preserved.

And as for the composers of the Hula chants and songs. There is a traditional Hawaiian saying which goes: “You bear both the good and the bad consequences of the poetry you compose.” Ancient Hawaiians believed that language possessed mana, or power derived from a spiritual source. If you’ve ever read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea series, then imagine the power that Ged and his fellow wizards are able to wield over the things around them, provided they knew the true names of those things. As such, the ability to skilfully weave history, religion, culture, morality and genealogy into chants and song was one of the most revered skills in pre-colonial Hawaiian society. As if to prove the point, there are in fact forty-three different words in the Hawaiian language ‘Olelo Hawai’i just for describing voice quality. Song composers (haku mele) and chanters were held in the highest regard, alongside the Hula dancers who brought their stories to life. 

Of course, as with all beauty, there is tragedy. In 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook made the first documented European contact with the Hawaiians, and soon flocks of European, Russian, and American colonists and missionaries were visiting. By the late 19th century, the Hawaiian Kingdom had been overthrown by the United States of America, and the monarchs of Hawaii had been forced to adopt Christianity as their religion. 

As always happens, with the forced conversion of a native people to Christianity (or any other monotheistic religion, for that matter), there soon came a barbaric cultural genocide. In 1896, a law was passed banning the use of the Hawaiian language in schools. Hula – traditionally performed topless in a small pāʻū, or wrapped skirt – was in the same century denounced as heathen, and a vestige of paganism which the new Christian colonists were determined to stamp out of Hawaiian culture altogether. In 1830, public performances of Hula were banned, so scared were the imperialists of the effects which dancing and storytelling might have on their dominion. This sort of genocide is standard colonial practice – rob a people of their language and culture and before long they forget who they are enough to believe you’re actually the good guys. It makes an interesting point, I think, about just how powerful a weapon the art of storytelling and history-telling is.

Thankfully, one Queen of Hawaii at the end of the 19th century, Princess Lili’uokalani, devoted herself to preserving the traditional arts. Moving into the 20th century, and, whilst Hula had been permanently and drastically changed, the dance form was somehow kept alive by the marketing of it for tourism. Come the 1970s and the Hawaiian Renaissance, and there has been an even greater renewed interest in both traditional and modern hula, with scholars delving into and reviving the rich history behind the instruments used, the dance moves choreographed, and the chants passed down orally from generation to generation. 

Today, whilst the foreigner’s eye remains focused on the too-oft sexualised and sensationalised Hula ‘Auana (think tropical leaf skirts, coconut bras, and white flower lei), and whilst Hula ‘Auana remains a beautiful and legitimate form of Hula, there are thankfully more and more practitioners of the traditional storytelling art: Hula kahiko. May it grow ever stronger, and teach the myths, legends and family histories of Hawaii to Hawaiian children for centuries to come.

Thank you for listening to this first episode in the latest season of The Wandering Bard, a bonus historical series from Stories from the Hearth, looking at the importance of storytelling and the people behind it. This month, we looked at the Hula storytellers of Hawaii. Tune in next month to learn all about the Griots of West Africa, and set your alarms for July 25th, when the next story episode of Stories from the Hearth will be released.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please rate and review the podcast on your podcast player, or even better: on iTunes or Apple Podcasts – that really helps me get more visibility. Share the podcast with your friends and family, and if you want to support this venture even more, then join me on Patreon. From just £2, you can get early access to every story episode, bonus monthly episodes and more, ensuring that Stories from the Hearth stays ad-free and up and running. 

Until next time, I’ve been Calum Bannerman, and you’ve been listening to The Wandering Bard on Stories from the Hearth.