You are on page 1of 12

1

Marisa McKay Presnell Eng 1102 April 15th, 2014 Western Influence on Polynesian Dance: Hawaii and the Mainland

All in the Family Growing up in a family with very mixed backgrounds, I was introduced to many different cultural perspectives from an early age. My dads side of family is both
Hawaii Club of NC at Annual International Festival in Raleigh, NC

Filipino and Hawaiian, and even though Ive lived in the South most of my life, my island ancestors have always been an intriguing subject. My grandmother has been teaching me phrases in the Hawaiian slang language of Pidgin since I can remember, and Hawaiian dishes like kalua pork (an entire pig roasted in the ground) and pp platter (raw fish or sushi appetizer) are always served at family gatherings. But one aspect of Hawaiian culture has

always befuddled me: hula dancing. My grandmother is still practicing the art of hula dancing at her ripe old age of 75, but the version of hula in Morehead City, NC differs greatly from that which you would see at the Hula Mound in Waikiki, Hawaii. Not only is the music more Americanized in that most songs are in English, but the overall stereotype of the hula dancer seems warped from its original purpose. Although I took hula lessons in Wake Forest, NC for about 4 years, and my family is heavily involved in Ka Puuwai o HawaiI (Hawaiian Club of NC), there were still so many details I wanted to find out about the history and evolution of hula dancing. I want to prove that hula is not just about a beautiful woman seducing a man; the uniforms are not just a coconut bra and a grass skirt; and the dancers are not always women. The Islands Before Western Involvement Most of Hawaiis history is shrouded in myth based on one god or another, and the origins of hula are no different. I learned from an article called Origins of Hula from HawaiiHistory.org that the most common myth is that of the goddess Pele and her sister Hiiaka. In this retelling, Pele begs her siblings to sing and dance for her, but only Hiiaka steps up to perform some ancient moves
Modern interpretation of ancient Polynesian dancer

she learned from her friend Hopoe. Origins of Hula also includes that the goddesses, Kapo and Laka, who are now recognized as the spiritual patrons of hula. In my former halau (hula group), I was told a similar rendition of the goddess Pele, but Ive never understood the religious and societal significances of the mythical gods and goddesses until researching the historical aspects of Hawaiian society. According to Elizabeth Bucks book, Paradise Remade, most hulas were accompanied by chants. These could be anything from a proclamation of love to a lamentation chant to praise towards the m (king). Contrary to what I believed all chants had religious meanings, hence political connotations (Buck 43). Most Hawaiians, like my grandmother, will tell you that hula is the most sacred art form. Learning this ancient art seems to help descendants from this tropical group of islands connect with their past ancestors. With the accompaniment of the dancers, hula and chants were an integral part of Hawaiian society, used for all occasions and to provide abstract social constructs. What many people dont know is that the Hawaiian Islands were a monarchy before Western involvement. There was only a separation between the wealthy, peasants, and the king or queen, but all of the Hawaiian people utilized hula and music as a unifying art from. After the missionaries from the Americas came, Hawaii was seen as a paradise, a tourist attraction. Hula and chants were transformed into shows and made tourist-friendly; their original sacred context was scrutinized by Americans and thus shaped by the West. Buck stated, hula was tamed and domesticated by the myths of paradise (Buck 8). Pictured above is a modern interpretation of what an ancient hula dancer would have looked like. As you can

see, she is posed as if praising the gods, which backs up Dr. Buck in her assertion that all chants and hula were born from religious nature. A Different Style for Every Occasion During my four-year stint of hula lessons, I learned some of the names of the different styles of Polynesian. I just recently learned that hula is mostly referred to as Polynesian instead of Hawaiian, because it encompasses a wide variety of styles from different countries or groups of islands. The most ancient form is hula kahiko, which is known for its rigid, sharp movements of the arms and legs. These are the hulas, which I referred to earlier that are accompanied by chants and a slew of different Hawaiian instruments including ipu (hollow gourds) and pahu (drums). In my personal experience, most hula kahiko has connotations of anger, whether it is representing Peles fiery temper or a general disruption of societal peace. The better-known style of hula is hula auwana, which is more graceful with fluid hand motions and swaying hips. In an interview I read by the Akionas, a Hawaiian family of dancers who transplanted to California when the cost of living on the islands became too high, they described hula auwana as the more Americanized of the two styles or hapa haole (McCray). This style is also known for the beautiful music that accompanies it. Instruments are more modern including the ukulele and guitars. Hula auwana that is performed at festivals such as the Kodak Hula Show in Waikiki shows Hawaiian culture as an exotic spectacle that can be captured on film and taken home (Buck 1). It seems to me as though Western culture has torn hula away from its religious ties, destroying its sacred nature in a way. Why is Hawaii showcased as a paradise and tourist attraction?

One style of hula backs up many Americans opinion that this dance form is sultry and seductive in nature. Tahitian dance is fast-paced and sensual, with gyrating hip movements, showcasing the dancers body with a close-fitting skirt and nothing more than a bra-like shirt. Otea is a sub style of Tahitian, which features colorful headdress and a multitude of colorful Hibiscus bracelets. I can definitely see where people are coming from when they remark on how sexy hula girls are, if they are referring to Tahitian, that is. After watching a video clip from The Spirit of Dance: Ethnic Dance Arts by an educational production company, it is clear that the Western interpretation is of hula is different from the sacred art form it once was. Although the video gets the costumes right: floral pau skirts with elastic waists, simple cotton tank tops, and flower leis galore, there is something out of place; all of the Hawaiian dancers in this dance series have pale, white skin and brown or red hair. Although Hawaiian hula dance is said to welcome all cultures, having American dancers for an educational and historical representation of this art form seems out of place and outlandish. I think that this whitewashed video clip exemplifies the idea that Western culture has re-imagined hula dance and stripped it of its natural, sacred beauty. Men Cant Dance One common misconception that many people still have today is that women are the only people who can be hula dancers. But as far back as I can remember, all of the men in my family from my

Men dancing hula kahiko at Merrie Monarch Festival 2013

dad to my grandfather to my great uncles have learned to dance. Upon reading an article that summarizes an episode of America Reframed, which is an educational television series about the differences made to America after Western settlement, I learned that men have been involved in hula since ancient times. Dr. Noelani M. Arista from the University of Hawaii at Manoa was interviewed during the episode, and she talked about how ancient Hawaiian men were trained in the martial art of lua at the same time as being taught hula kahiko. But you will not see men hula dancing in top box office movies, nor are they shown during the tourist shows such as the Kodak Festival when visiting the Hawaiian Islands. Limiting mens involvement in hula is just another way Ive found that Western culture has stifled the origins of hula. Cherishing Traditions As my research deepened and I broadened my topic to Hawaiian culture as a whole, I was reminded of the idea of human transplants. My family is great example of a group of native Hawaiians who moved to the mainland due to a job, financial circumstances or a military assignment. My grandmother did not
Hula Dancer at Merrie Monarch Festival 2013 want to lose her Hawaiian traditions and the feeling of home, so she and my parents helped

found Ka Puuwai o Hawaii in Raleigh, NC in 2007. Our club is open to all people with a connection to Hawaii or people who have a love of the Hawaiian culture. Each month, we

meet for a luau or a celebration of culture; there is food, dancing, and the elders talk story with each other for hours. Although most of the members of the club cant afford a yearly trip to the Hawaiian Islands, the clubs purpose is to teach mainlanders the ideals of our Hawaiian ancestors and to keep those traditions alive in the United States. Ive learned many Hawaiian phrases, how to make an orchid lei, and a few things about hula dancing from the Hawaiian Club. After this inquiry project, Im thankful for even the smallest taste of the true Hawaiian culture in the States that I can get. I realize that Ive been bashing Hawaii as a tourist attraction throughout my inquiry, but there are some things that have stayed sacred. One of those sacred things is the Merrie Monarch festival which is held in Hilo, Hawaii every April. According to MerrieMonarch.com, the festival is hosted by a non-profit organization which honors the legacy left by King David Kalakaua, who inspired the perpetuation of our traditions, native language, and the arts. Not only will you get to see hula dancing during this week of celebration, you can also catch a parade, and learn how to thread lei. Merrie Monarch is the epitome of ancient tradition and hula: the female and male dancers wear traditional pau skirts, haku leis (leis worn on the head), and they are accompanied by the original chants and musical instruments used before Western involvement. As much as American civilization has ruined the art of hula, the hula girl stereotypes are broken through the Merrie Monarch festival.

Evolution of Costume One thing that irks me to no end is that the moment I mention anything about my history and interest in hula dance, the immediate response is oh, is that the hula dancers that wear grass skirts? It was a joke in my halau that this stereotype of the coconut bra and grass skirt dancer was the Hollywood Hula. Cultural anthropologist, Janine Paat, echoed my concern in her interview with Philadelphia Daily News where she said, tourist hula developed primarily in the '50s, with the fake grass skirts. It was
Hawaiian woman modeling muu muu dress

a Hollywood creation. So what does the modern hula dancer actually look like? I still wasnt quite sure when I began my search, even though I danced for a few years and still have my various skirts and dresses. Pictured above is a Hawaiian woman wearing a muumuu, which is a tight-fitting, floorlength dress in any one of the infinite selections of floral prints. Buck mentioned in Paradise Remade that when missionaries first arrived on the Hawaiian Islands, they strongly advised dancers to cover their bodies in fabric to remove all sexual connotations. Once other political figures discovered that Hawaii was a tourist paradise, they began altering the dances and costumes to better attract them.

Nowadays, it seems that hula dancers wear whatever their halau decides. To the right is a picture my dad and I wearing a mix of traditional and Hollywood hula garb. The grass skirt my dad has on is straight from Party City, but the flower leis on my head and around my neck were flown over from Hawaii. Im also holding an ili ili, which is an implement used in many Tahitian dances historically and in the present. Since being disturbed by Western conquerors and delving into statehood, Hawaii seems to have evolved from a tranquil, untouched paradise to a gaudy, tourist attraction. The evolution of hula reflects Hawaiis transition to America as well. Ancient chants and hula are still practiced by some halaus on the Hawaiian Islands in competitions such as the famous Merrie Monarch festival in Hilo each year. Hulas popularity has spread worldwide as countries like Egypt and Iran have registered for hula conferences on the Big Island in recent years, and you can type in most American states and find a halua within 100 miles of your hometown. Not all of the changes to the art of hula have been bad; Im very appreciative that I can continue learning the art form of my ancestors from North Carolina. This worldwide hula perspective is accepting of all cultures, anyone who would like to learn the spirit of aloha is welcome. Ive learned so much about my heritage through my inquiry; it has renewed my passion for

10

Polynesian dance, and I hope that my search provides some insight into the beautiful art form that is hula. However, I had to take all of my positive findings with a grain of salt, because I also found out how much America has ruined the ideology behind Polynesian dance. The image of the seductive hula dancer with her coconut bra and fake grass skirt will still be ingrained in mainlanders minds tomorrow, but I hope that by reading this inquiry, you will have a better understanding of how Hawaii was, and how the culture is much about sacredness and religion as it is about beauty.

11

Works Cited

Buck, Elizabeth B. Paradise Remade: The Politics of Culture and History in Hawaii. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. Print.

Hale, Constance. "The Hula Movement: This Ancient Hawaiian Art is Catching on Nationwide-Even Worldwide. (Dance)." The Atlantic July-Aug. 2002: 166+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

McCray, Kerry. "Hula Hale - Polynesian Dancers Are Bridge To Island Cultures." Modesto Bee, The (CA) 22 Dec. 1996, All, Living: F-1. NewsBank. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

amalei the

en of Hula. Dir. Robert Cazimero. Lehua Films, 2007. .

Paat, Janine. Hula isn't just a dance - it's history." Philadelphia Daily News (PA) 24 Mar. 2011, FINAL, FEATURES: 34. NewsBank. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

"The Official Web Site of Merrie Monarch Festival - Hilo, Hawaii.". N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

12

The Spirit of Dance, Ethnic Dance Arts: Performance Excerpts. Dir. Edward Etsen. Insight Media, 1996. Film.

Related Interests