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Kalakaua and the history of hula

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2001-08-03

Recently, a local group of talented hula dancers, Kalakaua, was personally invited by Uncle George Naope and Aunty Bernie to participate in the 21st Annual King David Kalakaua Invitational Hula Festival on the Big Island of Hawaii on Nov. 15, 16 and 17. This is a huge honor for the group, as George Naope is known as one of the most accomplished teachers of the hula, and also as the founder of another well-known festival, the Merrie Monarch Festival, which is held annually and is currently in its 38th year of existance. A few years ago, on July 11, 1998, George Naope paid a visit to the Kalakaua hula dance school in Urasoe to present a certificate of excellence to Ekko Ota, a hula dance instructor born on Okinawa who has helped bring hula to the island through her 18 years of teaching. Through her childhood, Ota was engulfed with Hawaiian tradition and culture, and it wasn’t long before she was introduced to hula. Her first contact with the dance began as a child. Due to her father’s job, many second and third-generation Hawaiians in Okinawa always surrounded her, and though this contact she had the opportunity to learn many Hawaiian traditions, including the art of hula. Through years of dancing, her skill increased, and now she is one of the most accomplished “Kuma Hula”, or teachers of hula. It was quite an honor that George Naope, who has been recognized by the state of Hawaii as a “Living Legend and Golden Treasure,” chose to fly out to Okinawa to present this special award to Ekko Ota.

Uncle George has become a staple in the Hawaiian hula scene and uses his talent to maintain and increase the presence of hula. He has taught hula for 54 years to thousands of students, and he does it for only $3 per lesson, five days a week. However, “Bananas and papayas and ulu and potatoes — that’s the kind of money I get paid in,” he says in an article printed in the Honolulu Star. Uncle George has studied hula since age three, and among his teachers was the revered Iolani Luahine. He has learned enough to be known as a master in the art but has adequate foresight to see that hula must not get stuck in the past in order for it to grow and be taught in the future. “We shouldn’t be writing about what happened 100 years ago. We weren’t there,” he says. “But we should write about today so that the children and grandchildren can see what the life was like before their time.” George has traveled all over the world to judge hula festivals and feels that hula is for everyone, not just the Hawaiians.

According to King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last male monarch who is credited with reviving hula from the underground where it was subjugated by Calvinist missionaries in Hawaii in 1821, “Hula is the language of the heart and therefore, the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” Hula is the Hawaiian word for dance, and in order to dance hula there must be poetry to interpret. There are two major genres of Hula: Kahiko — chanted dances from ancient times to the turn of this century, and Auana — any dance accompanied by stringed instruments about any subject written by anyone with some knowledge of Hawaii. The subjects of Kahiko are the Gods of Polytheistic Hawaiian religion, the Ali’I or chiefs, kings and queens of the monarchy years, nature, work, love, and daily life. This genre serves to tell stories of the days of old. For Kahiko, the style is a bent-knee stance, as it is said that the dancer may absorb the Earth’s energy. The overall countenance is solemn and reverent, and the dancers do not smile except for in special dances. Auana, on the other hand, is the style of hula most often seen by the general public. The songs have catchy tunes, and the stance is still bent-knee, but not nearly as low to the ground as in Kahiko. The arms are more interpretive and flowery, and the dancers always smile. Songs in the Auana style can be about anything, but love is the most popular topic.

Many people believe that hula is primarily about hand movement; however, the essence of ancient hula was in the words without which there would be no dance. The chants themselves tell complex, meaningful stories. Hula has a long history and tells many stories of the creation of the islands. “While the acknowledged patron of the hula is the goddess Laka, a wealth of legends tell of the fiery goddess Pele, who searched for a home on each of the Hawaiian islands before settling into a volcanic cauldron on the Big Island,” says Pat Griffin, editor of Aloha from Hawaii.

In the early 1820’s, Christian missionaries who felt that the dances were noisy and heathenish drove hula into the underground. These missionaries made great efforts to abolish the dance, eventually convincing Christianized royalty to declare it illegal, but the dance was not about to end. Fifty years later, King David Kalakaua, who would take the throne in 1874, is credited with returning the ancient dance to the public. He encouraged the hula. In fact, more than 260 chants and dances were performed at his coronation. “During Kalakaua’s reign the hula again became a living tradition, one that grew and evolved,” says Griffin. In 1909, Nathaniel Emerson, the son of missionaries, would bring this art form to the view of the outside world with the publication of his book, Unwritten Literature of Hawai’i, in which he documented details such as the organization of a hula school, its ceremonies, aspects of training, costume, and graduation. He clearly loved hula and wrote, “If one comes to the study of hula and its songs in the spirit of a censorious moralist he will find nothing for him; if as a pure ethnologist, he will take pleasure in pointing out the physical resemblances of the Hawaiian dance to the geisha or other Oriental dances. But if he comes as a student and lover of human nature… he will find himself entering the playground of the human race.”

It is indeed quite an honor for Okinawa’s hula team Kalakaua to be chosen by Uncle George Naope to perform in the 21st Annual King David Kalakaua Invitational Hula Festival this November on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hula is a beautiful art form; one with as interesting of a history as the stories it tells. Congratulations to the team for being handpicked for such an important occasion.

Hula team Kalakaua recently visited Mitsuo Gibo, mayor of Urasoe City.

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