More than a dozen women stand barefoot, waiting for the kumu hula to chant, as their ancestors did when the gods ruled Hawaii.
"Just lock into yourself. Chant to yourself. The chant that you chant should be your chant," Mapuana deSilva, a petite woman with a thick mass of black hair framing her elfin face, tells members of Halau Mohala Ilima, her hula school. "Get your voice to roll, to leap, to jump."
Dressed in sweat pants, T-shirts and gingham skirts, the women are standing in a wrestling room at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu -- a private school for children of Hawaiian ancestry established at the turn of the century through the estate of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha I.
One by one, Mrs. deSilva's students recite an oli (a chant that is not danced to) that they will perform at Hawaii's most prestigious hula competition, the Merrie Monarch Festival, held this year March 31 to April 6. One by one, their voices roll, leap and jump in a song that in days past might be sung for the alii -- the chiefs of Hawaii.
This is the essence of hula -- the words to a song that tell the story of a god, a place, a lover. This is hula at its most traditional: The song is simply chanted without musical accompaniment -- or dance, for that matter. This is the kind of hula that can be found only in school auditoriums, community halls or at weekend festivals of traditional Hawaiian music and dance. It's performed by a traditional school of hula known as a halau.
The shows in Waikiki generally feature Polynesian dances performed by curvaceous women in sarongs, grass skirts or colorful, stylish muu-muus. They also may feature a modern style of hula performed to popular English-language songs and accompanied by the ukulele or guitars.
The dancers from a halau may or may not be curvaceous; they could be as young as 4 or as old as 80. Their costumes may appear to be more Victorian in style, although the group would use native materials such as wide, green ti leaves to fashion a skirt or plumeria flowers to string a lei or garland for their hair.
The language heard at these performances most likely would be Hawaiian, instead of English. The musical accompaniment for the dancer would feature traditional Hawaiian instruments -- an ipu (a bottle-shaped gourd), an uli uli (a gourd rattle decorated with feathers and containing seeds) and a pahu (a sharkskin-covered drum).
Although many of the hula shows in Waikiki incorporate aspects of the traditional dance in performances -- by using chants, the gourd instruments or Hawaiian music -- the dancers who perform with a halau seem to embody the spirit and soul of the ancient craft.
"The average tourist doesn't come to Hawaii to see traditional hula. They come to see the fire knife dancer, to hear 'The [Hawaiian] Wedding Song' sung, to see the Tahitian dancers," said Noenoelani Zuttermeister Lewis, a hula teacher at the University of Hawaii whose family has been dancing hula for four generations.
"They are going to go to where mai tais are being served, where they are having a good time," said Mrs. Lewis, whose 81-year-old mother, Emily Kau'i Zuttermeister, is one of Hawaii's last living loeas, a master chanter and teacher of ancient hula. (Her father ++ arrived in Hawaii in the 1920s as a young sailor from Baltimore and encouraged her mother to learn hula.)
"They miss learning what the hula really means and the beauty about it," Mrs. Lewis continued. "The beauty is in the story, the words, the way you express yourself in the music. Hula is expressed from within, not out. You can see in their face the love in their heart."
As an art form, the hula incorporates the mystery and color of Hawaiian myth and legend. Through chants and songs, the hula tells the stories of gods and well-loved men, goddesses and earthly queens, sharks and canoes, love and death.
The traditional dance was banned during the mid-1800s after Christian missionaries denounced the hula as "lascivious." At his coronation in 1883, King David Kalakaua ordered that the hula again be publicly performed. Many of the hulas danced today date from then.
The hula -- in many forms -- is performed throughout the Hawaiian islands: at noon in a mall, impromptu in a bar or during any of several elaborate resort shows. Women -- large and small -- dance the hula. Men do, too -- some with the power and grace of a panther. And you don't have to be Hawaiian to understand, appreciate or dance hula.
In traditional hula, the dancers will call out the first line of a song verse before they perform the steps. Even though the song may be in Hawaiian, the story also is told through a pantomime. A dancer's hands can reach for clouds, skip like waves, or send love from the heart. While the dance can be as fluid and graceful as a ballet, the energy and power of the choreography also evoke the dance's tribal quality.
In some ways, hula instruction is more basic to the upbringing of a little girl in Hawaii than ballet class might be to the little girl who grows up on the mainland. Hula is taught in schools, recreation centers and colleges.
The bedrock of hula instruction, however, is the halau.
In Hawaiian, "halau" means a long rectangular-shaped house or shed. A shed that was open at either end was used to hold a canoe. A shed that was closed at either end was used as a hall for hula instruction.
Each halau and the way it teaches the basic steps of the hula -- flat-footed or on toes -- is as different as the kumu hula, or hula teacher, who runs the school.
Mapuana deSilva never took a hula lesson as a child. She learned hula for the first time as a member of a Hawaiian students' club while in college in Oregon. She studied with a kumu hula upon returning to Hawaii after college.
Now, she teaches hula six days a week from her home in Lanikai, a small waterfront community on the windward side of Oahu. Her school, Halau Mohala Ilima, has 425 students, including 30 who have been with the halau for 10 years or more. Her youngest pupil is 4, her oldest about 60.
By the time Mrs. deSilva's students perform at Merrie Monarch in March -- one of only 29 halaus selected for the competition -- they will have been practicing five hula dances for almost a year "so when they get on stage they can think about how they feel -- not where to put your hands and feet," she said.
When Mrs. deSilva teaches a dance that depicts a historical character in a particular setting, she will ask students to draw the scene. In that way, the students will be able to conjure up the scene in their imaginations and infuse their dancing with emotion.
Mrs. deSilva describes her group as a "traditional halau," in that it is confined to the literal translation of a story used in hula. "I don't choreograph with real explicit sexual moves," she said, "extreme moves that are not on the verge of being hula anymore but are more modern dance or jazz or any other dance we're influenced by."
"This is what we do to preserve our culture," Mrs. deSilva said, adding that her students learn about their Hawaiian heritage, the people and values of the time, through the chants and dances that are taught. "We are not doing this just to entertain people or put on a show. In fact we're not an entertaining halau. We're a school of learning."
If you go . . .
To find out where a halau may be performing in a local community while visiting Hawaii, check the Friday entertainment sections of the Honolulu newspapers for "Hawaiiana" events. Or call KCCN, the local Hawaiian radio station, at (808) 536-2728.
Halau Mohala Ilima will be performing March 9-10 at Mamiya Theater at Chaminade College in Honolulu. For ticket information call "Dances We Dance" at (808) 537-2152.
The only performance at this spring's Merrie Monarch Festival for which tickets are still available is the Miss Aloha Hula competition April 4. The competition will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Edith Kanakaole Tennis Stadium in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Tickets are $3 a person. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope (money orders only) to Merrie Monarch Festival, 400 Hualani St., Hilo, Hawaii 96720. For further information call (808) 935-9168.
Aspects of traditional hula:
ho'opa'a: drummer and hula chanter.
olapa: the dancer, as opposed to the chanter.
hula ai haa: a step danced with bended knees; the chanting for this usually is bombastic and emphatic.
ami: a step with hip revolutions.
hula kuolo: to kneel and beat a gourd to a chant, with gestures appropriate to the story.
Here is a mele or chant composed in ridicule by a man whose wife left him hastily one early morning to meet a lover:
Tousled are the feathers of the birds
In the morning rain,
Clearly one can see through the mist,
Punaluu is decked out in the swelling
waters of Kauila,
Completely stirred up
By the sea of Kamehame, [but]
The cliff of Phina lacks nothing,
Clothed in the mist of Waiohinu.
Source: "Hula, Historical Perspectives," by Dorothy B. Barrere, Mary Kawena Pukui and Marion Kelly.