Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Birthplace of Hula ; A Hula at the Birthplace of the Dance Is Nothing like One at a Honolulu Hotel

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Birthplace of Hula ; A Hula at the Birthplace of the Dance Is Nothing like One at a Honolulu Hotel

Article excerpt

"Hula," the Hawaiian word most known throughout the world, immediately brings to mind the image of grass skirts, coconuts, and swinging hips. But when I was visiting the islands, a Hawaiian friend suggested if I truly wanted to get past the glitz of the tourist-focused presentation to the heart and soulof the dance, I should visit Molokai, birthplace of the hula.

Her cousin was hosting a luau on Molokai, the most rural of the Hawaiian islands, to honor her son's first birthday. Relatives would dance in celebration, roast a pig in an open pit, and rejoice all day. Part of the commemoration would be a traditional hula.

The hula has had a turbulent history. When missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820 to preach and teach, they did their best to stamp out the dance, which they perceived as lewd and objectionable.

In 1830, Queen Kaahumanu converted to Christianity and forbade public hula performances. By 1896, when the Hawaiian language was banned from schools, the hula had almost disappeared.

During the time when it was out of favor, knowledgeable elders far from the mission stations still taught the hula and its oral tradition. The dancers entertained in local homes. In this way, both the dance and the language were kept alive.

Different styles and types of hula evolved from the history of the people dancing.

Before hula studios and cellophane skirts came into existence, a dancer was chosen because the proper authorities deemed her suitable and worthy.

After the selection came a long period of training. The dancers lived under the strict supervision of the kumu-hula, a dance master skilled in the arts. They adhered to rigid rules regulating diet, behavior, recreation, studies, and practice.

The school was usually a large thatched structure called the halau hula, spacious, airy, and closed on all sides to avoid the spying eyes of the villagers.

After long and arduous training, when the pupils were judged ready to be seen publicly, they were presented at a ritual called uniki, or graduation exercise. Perfection of performance was required of every dancer.

During the l920s and '30s, thanks to Hollywood - Dorothy Lamour in her sarong - and a budding tourist industry, the hula became the enduring emblem of the islands. The more traditional forms have made a comeback since the late 1960s, when native Hawaiians began rediscovering their historical culture.

The modern hula is usually danced to songs, while more traditional hulas are danced to a chant known as a mele. Contemporary performances are presented with greater emphasis on the motions than on the words, although the body movements do interpret the words' meanings to some extent.

I wondered just what type of hula was in store for me.

As I peered through the window of the island-hopping airplane, Molokai looked daunting - it has a vertical "wall" rising 2,000 feet from the crashing Pacific surf. Ancient Hawaiians named the island molo meaning barren and kai meaning sea.

When Capt. James Cook "discovered" Molokai in 1778, he found it bleak and inhospitable. Its epitaph became the Forgotten Isle.

Precisely because of this isolation, the second-largest concentration of native Hawaiians live here. The largest group lives in the island of Niihau, closed to outsiders. Until tourists saturated Oahu and Maui, few ventured to Molokai.

From the airport, Route 460 leads to Kuanakakai, the hub town on the south shore that came to the world's attention through a song played by the Benny Goodman orchestra about the "cockeyed mayor of Kuanakakai." Half of the island's 7,400 citizens live here.

Wooden buildings reminiscent of an Old West movie set front the main street. The three-block business district resembles Dodge City and has one traffic light. Six cars constitutes a traffic jam.

The story is told that on a sacred hill in Kaana, amid verdant groves, Laka, the goddess of hula, was taught to dance by her sister Kapo. …

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