“We bend our knees to humble oneself,” my kumu, or hula teacher, said as the eight women swayed their hips.
I had been taking hula classes in Northern California for months, and as a dancer I had expected to easily pick up the eight traditional steps of this ancient dance.
Yet as I swayed side to side, I couldn’t embrace fully what my dance teachers called the soul of the movement. Hula, it seemed, was as foreign to me as the culture that gave birth to this sacred dance.
Stories vary, but the most popular tale says Hawaiian goddesses introduced this complex art at Lohiau’s Temple on the north shore of Kauai. Hula blended simple footwork with hand gestures to illustrate the myths and histories of each family group. These stories could be passed down only from the kings, or alii, and kumu hula.
Fast forward a few centuries, and here I was learning the koholo (a side step that appears in most every hula) in a chilly studio on the California coast.
As I watched my kumu shake her head at my attempts, I decided to head to Oahu to learn more about this ancient dance so I could fully connect with its movements.
Retracing the steps
There’s no better showcase for the history of hula than Honolulu’s Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. Its 125-year-old Hawaiian hall is filled with artifacts from Tahitians who settled on the islands from the ninth to 13th centuries and were thought to be the first to use hula as a cultural “glue.”
In the hall, I found on display hula instruments such as handmade drums made of sharkskin and ipu (gourds). The pahu, a large drum made from the breadfruit tree, is used only for the hula kahiko, a chant-led dance typically performed for special events such as the Merrie Monarch festival, an annual hula competition that begins today and continues through Saturday in Hilo on Hawaii Island. I had never seen the instrument, considered the heartbeat of the dance, in my classes at home.
That night I attended the Diamond Head Luau on the grounds of the Waikiki Aquarium overlooking the Pacific. Before the show, hula performer Taina Malu explained to me that the missionaries considered hula dirty (all those women without tops), and so they abolished the dance.
With no written language, dancers gathered in private to memorize not only chants but also to remember their ancestors, histories and legends.
King Kalakaua returned hula to the mainstream in 1880, calling the dance the “heartbeat of Hawaii.” Hollywood then embraced the hula in the 1950s, which Malu said caused the dance to change.
The stories told for tourists now are tales of Pacific Islander dance rather than tales of Hawaii’s history. As I watched the hula performers’ rapid musical changes and upbeat choreography, I understood what Malu meant about modern audiences expecting a faster, more vigorous form of dance and not the traditional gentle storytelling.
Learning the dance
The next day I tried to find a hula class open to the public, but the concierge at my hotel explained that other than at luaus, hula is not a tourist experience.
Hula schools pride themselves in creating long-lasting communities, calling themselves hula sisters and brothers, and usually do not offer drop-in hula classes to outsiders.
The kumus undergo decades of training, and many of their schools practice all year for the Merrie Monarch Festival. Kumus and schools secure bragging rights and boost enrollment with a Merrie Monarch win, often practicing one dance all year.
The concierge said that if I wanted to experience traditional hula outside a hula school, I should attend the free class at the Royal Hawaiian Center taught by kumu Puakeala Mann. Later that morning I joined about 50 students under a banyan tree in the Royal Grove to study the choreography for that week.
Like my teacher on the mainland, Mann used lyrics to help dancers remember the hand gestures, explaining how the movements corresponded to the story.
When we talked about aloha (the Hawaiian concept of love), we embraced our own bodies and then swooped our arms open as if embracing the entire island with that love. I swayed with the warm breeze, stepping side to side, the sound of songbirds high in the trees.
At last I was expressing emotion, as if the language of hula was coming from within, but something still wasn’t quite right.
Later that evening, before she took the stage, I asked hula performer Kanoe Miller at the Halekulani's House Without a Key what was missing from my understanding of this sacred dance.
She said, “Go sit on the sand and be quiet. Watch how the waves move; they’re just like our hands, feet and hips.” She raised her hands to greet the sea, moving her body in sync with the lapping water.
Before flying home, I visited to Kauai’s Ke’e Beach, which many people consider the birthplace of hula, at the end of the road on the north shore.
Locals had preserved the foundation of Lohiau’s Temple, creating a heiau, or sacred space, where hula enthusiasts can pay their respects to the goddesses who first brought dance to the ancients.
I placed a lei on the lava rock, giving thanks for the history of this sacred dance. Then I slipped into the water, my hips swaying with the momentum of the sea. I felt nature take over, and I suddenly understood that hula dancers must embody the elements in order to share the stories of Hawaii.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO HONOLULU
From LAX: United, Delta, Hawaiian and American offer nonstop service to Honolulu, and American, United, Hawaiian, Delta and Alaska offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $536, including taxes and fees.
WHAT TO DO
Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu; (808) 847-3511, www.bishopmuseum.org. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. $22.95 for adults; $19.95 for 65 and older; $14.95 for children 4-12.
Diamond Head Luau, 2777 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu (888) 589-5006, www.diamondheadbeachluau.com. Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. $99 for adults, $69 for children ages 4 to 12.
Royal Hawaiian Center, 2201 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; (808) 922-2299, www.royalhawaiiancenter.com. Free hula, ukulele, massage and craft classes in the heart of Waikiki. Hour-long hula instruction Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.