Traditional hula recalls days when gods reigned over islands


February 10, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

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.

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