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History of Hawaiian Traditional Hula Dance

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Traditional Hula Dance

Hula dance originated from the Hawaiian island by Polynesian settlers the form encompasses chats, words, movement, song and chants. Performed by either male or female it provides an alluring visual spectacle of same sex dancers in an almost ritualistic movement.

The forbearance of the performers is either serene or aggressive depending on the purpose, occasion or performance. The form is accompanied by traditional instruments, chants/words (oli), dance forms that portrays words of “mele”.

Elements of Traditional Hula Dance

An ancient form is the Kahiko with many sub-styles and two major categories Hula kahiko and Hula Auana. Common elements of traditional hula are words, chants and movement. Others include dance, songs, traditional instruments, native attire.

Elements of the Dance Form

  1. words
  2. chants
  3. vocal performance
  4. poetry
  5. rituals
  6. prayer
  7. movement
  8. group dance
  9. songs

10. traditional instruments

11. native attire/ costumes

Hawaii images

Hawaii images

Hawaii images

Modern Hula

The origin is steeped in legend with different connotations’. Rooted in a sacred ceremony, religious tradition with oral interpretations and dance.

Hawaiian tourist industry is responsible for the resurgence and popularity of the traditional art form. Old or modern practitioners feature in festivals, tourist locations and hula show. There are also competitions, hula schools and pre-game sport rituals.

  • Tourist industry
  • Festivals
  • hula show
  • competitions
  • hula schools
  • pre-game sport rituals

Hula Instrument

hula instrument

hula instrument


Ancient forms use only traditional instruments or implements to accompany the dance. However modern variations have introduced western instruments to the performance. Common traditional Instruments or implements are sharkskin drum(Puniu), rhythm stick-Kala’au. Others are the split bamboo stick-Puili, feathered gourd-Ulili, and double gourd drum –Ipu heke, single gourd drum –ipu. More include the coconut shell fish skin drum Puniu, worn lava stone-lli-ili. Modern stringed instruments are the bass or steel guitar.

Traditional Outfit

Traditional regalia are worn during the performances. Each piece of costume or adornment symbolizes the ‘mele auana’. Color plays a significant role in the purpose of the presentation.

Modern influences in costume for women is the shoulder styled long dresses while men wear trousers. Traditions costumes for women is grass skirt, bracelets, lei, necklaces. Male dancers wear dogs-tooth anklets, loin cloth (malo), tapa, lei, and long tapa.

Rafia Skirt

rafia skirt

rafia skirt


Female Dancers Wear

  • shoulder styled long dresses
  • grass skirt
  • bracelets
  • lei
  • necklaces
Scroll to Continue

Male dancers Wear

  • dogs-tooth anklets
  • loin cloth (malo)
  • trousers/pants
  • tapa
  • lei
  • long tapa

Songs and Chant

Extremely varied in delivery, technicality and component traditional chanters were revered. Infusion in the form includes rituals dance, sacredness, meaning, poetry and linguistic composition. Voice quality, delivery, style, songs and chants are elements in the oral renditions.

Passed down through generations the Hawaiian history was memorized for accuracy in absence of written language. The chant referred to as “Oli” were stories of heroism, war, ancestry and traditions. The chant sometime include mythology, stories of the people origin or creation.

More elements in the chant are love, prayer, genealogy, name or birth. Others are sacredness, procreation, expression, game, oration, lamentation. Type of vocalization is important put in context meaning to the message and performance.

Books and Films on Hula

The traditional practice is depicted in many books and films. Books include Jerry Hopkins, The Hula 2011 and Amy Stillman `Ala`apapa. An analysis of the `Ala`apapa style of sacred hula. More books are Nathaniel Emerson,

The Myth of Pele and Hi’aka, Nanette Kilohana Kaihawanawana Orman, Hula Sister and Ishmael W Stagner’s Kumu hula. Popular films on the topic are Hula Girls 2006, Kumu Hina 2014, The Haumana 2013, Holo Mai Pele 2000.

Ancient Chants, Dance Forms

ancient chants and dance forms

ancient chants and dance forms

Similar Dance Forms

Polynesian islands have similar dance forms however the hula is unique to the hawaaians. Related dance forms are found in newzealand, samoa, tonga Tahiti and cooks island. The forms include lakalaka, poi, haka and ote’a. Others are the kappa haka, aparima, tamure, Tau’olunga and Fa’ataupati.

  • Lakalaka
  • Poi
  • Haka
  • ote’a
  • kappa haka
  • aparima
  • tamure
  • Tau’olunga
  • Fa’ataupati

Telling Warrior Stories with Hula

Religious influence

With the advent of Christianity traditional chants were viewed as pagan. Most traditional chants are forgotten and the language nearly extinct. However there are Hawaiian language schools and hula schools emerging.

Hula schools or halau (group) have the kumu hula( teacher) the olapa (dancer), alakai(leader). To enter a halau an entrance chant for permission is practiced. Today performances are for general entertainment, sport, tourism or visiting chiefs.

© 2019 olu


olu (author) from Lagos, Nigeria on September 14, 2020:

Thanks peggy and dale

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 12, 2020:

It would be interesting to know the meaning behind all of the hula dances. We got to see some of that on our one trip to Hawaii. Thanks for the explanation.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 12, 2020:

This was neat, thanks for sharing it with us. Kind of you to take the time out of your day to write this hub.

tony on December 11, 2019:


Liz Westwood from UK on December 11, 2019:

This is a very interesting and helpful explanation of Hula dance.

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