What is the Hula?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The hula is both a dance and a ceremony unique to the earliest residents of Hawaii. Though there are other dances similar in parts of Polynesia, they are different enough to state that the Hula evolved on Hawaii.

A ukulele is often used during hula dancing.
A ukulele is often used during hula dancing.

The initial or old-style hula is called Kahiko. It is actually a religious dance that was meant to worship the Gods of Hawaii. It was accompanied by primarily percussion instruments such as drums made of gourds, coconuts, and castanets made from gourds. Chanting also accompanies Kahiko. Though most associate the hula with the ukulele, only the modern hula dance relies on this.

The hula has its origins in Hawaii.
The hula has its origins in Hawaii.

Kahiko was taken extremely seriously as it was a celebration or an act of devotion to the gods. If incorrectly performed, it was believed the dance might either evoke the wrath of the honored god, or be invalidated by mistakes. Thus every movement of each Kahiko hula dance is very deliberate and requires great skill to perform.

Traditional costuming for the Kahiko hula dance is a wrapped skirt for women, and the loincloth for men. Both women and men left the chests bare, which caused missionaries visiting the islands to declare the hula as sinful. However in Hawaiian religion, this aspect was not sinful or shameful, but merely part of the traditional way to perform Kahiko.

Modern hula called is called hula ‘auana. Such dance may be taken from the traditional dances of religious observance. However, many are significantly updated, and may be used to tell stories of Hawaiian gods or legends. In addition to percussion instruments, the ukulele, steel guitars and bass often accompany the dancers. Chants are less common, but singing is quite common.

Costuming can vary considerably. Women may dance in the wrapped skirt, a grass skirt, or elegant Hawaiian dresses. It is rare, however, to see women dance with a bare chest in ‘auana. The modern hula may be performed at luaus, or at special feasts. Guests to Hawaii may also take classes or get a chance to participate in the dance.

Those unfamiliar with the hula are often in awe at the gracefulness of the movements. Most commonly noticed is the sway of the hips, but arm movements are beautiful and expressive. Male dances are very athletic, emphasizing acrobatic moves over grace.

Interest in the hula has touched all the contiguous US states, and many recreation centers now offer hula classes. As well, private dance schools and local colleges may offer introductions to hula ‘auana. Many enjoy these classes and find that the precision required in movements is actually a fantastic way to maintain physical fitness.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


My brother and I used to visit our cousin’s on the big island every summer. I can remember one year we got to be guest performers at a Luau. It was as much fun preparing for it as it was actually doing it.

Our uncle helped us make our own hula implements out of gourds, feathers, and bamboo rods, and our aunt helped with our hula skirts and lei’s. My cousin’s and aunt also taught us some simple hula chants and dance movements. We had so much fun!

They don’t live there anymore but I have gone back to the island a few times with my husband. I can’t tell you how many oyster shells he’s purchased hoping to find a pearl inside and all those dashboard hula girls. I should open a shop.


I'd just like to share with you a brief history of hula hoops. Contrary to their name they were not invented in Hawaii. They date back to ancient Greece when rings of vines were made and used as a form of exercise or hooping.

In later years hooping came to Great Britain where it found a new use as a toy. It wasn’t given its current name until the 1800’s when British soldiers visited the Hawaiian Islands and first witnessed hulas being performed.

The rhythmic hip motion of the hula dance and hooping gave birth to the name hula hoop.

Originally rings were made out of grasses and vines but in the 1950’s an Australian toymaker began marketing a wooden hoop. Soon after a California entrepreneur got word about the demand over the wooden toy and quickly began manufacturing the bright colored plastic rings that are so popular with children today.

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