The surprising history of Hawai‘i’s hula tradition (2023)

With her flower crown and grass skirt, the hula girl has been synonymous with Hawaiian hospitality since cruise ships first docked in Honolulu in the 1920s. Even today, exoticized images of these traditional dancers headline on travel websites, at tiki-themed bars, and on wiggly dashboard tchotchkes.

Over the past two centuries, the cherished Hawaiian dance has moved from a sacred religious practice to a tourist attraction, along the way falling prey to cultural appropriation and near erasure.

“People shunned the old style of hula and looked at dancers like they were heathens,” says Micah Kamohoali‘i, a kumu hula (hula teacher) and cultural ambassador on the island of Hawai‘i. “Then our hula became more of a Hollywood show. We never danced with cellophane skirts and coconut bras.”

For Hawaiians, hula is a living archive of their history and stories. Preserving it is their kuleana (responsibility). “Hula is our highest expression of who we are. It’s our language put into motion,” says Māpuana de Silva, a kumu hula who has been teaching hula on O‘ahu since 1976. “The stories encompass not just our way of living, but our existence, our world.”

Hawaiian cultural organizations are now reclaiming and safeguarding a more authentic version of hula—both for residents and visitors. “People are history seekers today,” says Kumu Kamohoali‘i. “They want to know the truth, and they crave something more authentic.”

Here’s a look at hula’s history, marginalization, legacy, and renewal in Hawaiian culture.

The roots of hula

Before Western contact in 1778, hula had been a part of Hawaiian life for hundreds of years. Dancers would move to chants at temple ceremonies honoring gods and chiefs or tell stories explaining topics including weather patterns, the stars, and the movement of earth and lava.

Hawaiian myths recount multiple stories about the origins of hula, often featuring Pele, the goddess of volcano and fire. The legends—and the movements they inspire—vary by region and geography. “If you’re from Puna (on the island of Hawai‘i), the dance will have bombastic chanting—it almost sounds like lava cracking and the roaring of [a] volcano,” says Kumu Kamohoali‘i. “On Kaua‘i, where they have pristine beaches, their styles are melodic and flowy like the ocean.”

(These hula competitions immerse visitors in the island tradition.)

Prior to the 1820s, there was no written language in Hawai‘i, so hula was one way for residents to pass knowledge from generation to generation. But during the 19th century, the sacred dance was spurned as Christian missionary influence swept over the islands. Public performances of hula—deemed a vulgar pagan ritual—were outlawed. Hula went underground, though hālau hula (hula schools) continued to operate in rural villages.

“My family members were dancing in caves and sugar cane fields. They were holding practice late at night when nobody was around,” says Kumu Kamohoali‘i. “It was important to continue teaching these old dances.”

A hula resurgence began in 1883 under King David Kalākaua, who hosted his extravagant coronation at the newly built ʻIolani Palace, now a museum in Honolulu. Known as the Merrie Monarch for his patronage of traditional culture, King Kalākaua filled the two-week celebration with once-forbidden Hawaiian traditions—hula performances, music, and a lūʻau.

The strong Christian missionary presence in the islands changed the hula. Its chants became more melodic, resembling Christian hymns. Its dances honored Hawaiian monarchs, not the old gods. “We weren’t talking about the birth of the island anymore,” says Kumu Kamohoali‘i. “Instead, we were talking about flowers, rain, and the king and the queen.”

The revival was short lived. Hula was once again shunned after King Kalākaua’s successor Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown by American businessmen in 1893. The U.S. annexed Hawai‘i in 1898; it became a U.S. territory two years later.

(Learn how white planters overthrew the last queen of Hawai‘i.)

How hula turned into a stereotype

On the continent, many Americans learned about the Hawaiian culture at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. It ignited a Hawaiian craze and the whitewashed version of hula—with cellophane skirts and coconut shell bras—that permeated Hollywood movies, tiki bars, and vaudeville shows.

When ocean cruises became popular in the late 1920s, thousands of tourists from the U.S. mainland sailed to Honolulu. Hotels, including The Royal Hawaiian, popped up along Waikīkī Beach’s white sands.

Following the success of “boat days,” where locals welcomed tourists with leis and hula, the free Kodak Hula Show opened in 1937 in Waikīkī. “Shows like that brought hula to the forefront and were seen as part of the allure of the islands,” says Kainoa Daines, senior brand director at the Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau. “Unfortunately, stereotypes and misconceptions evolved, and the hula was seen as merely a hip-shaking, arm-flailing dance for entertainment.”

The Hawaiian identity continued to erode throughout territorial rule, and just after Hawai‘i became a state in 1959. The Hawaiian language was not taught in schools, and children were often punished for speaking it. As a result, the language almost went extinct. With the loss of the language, hula, which is always paired with chants in Hawaiian, was at risk of becoming obsolete.

A hula revival

The mid 20th-century was a time of rapid change, with the Civil Rights Movement improving the lives of Black Americans in the 1960s and influencing the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s. “Our people said, ‘We need to change the laws. We need to be able to give our kids Hawaiian names. We need to be able to speak our own language,” says Kumu Kamohoali‘i. In 1978, the state constitution was amended to include Hawaiian as one of the two state languages and to mandate that public schools teach Hawaiian culture, language, and history, including dance.

Locals were reclaiming the hula, too. On the island of Hawai‘i, the town of Hilo launched the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1964. Now, the annual spring festival draws the best hula groups from the islands and the mainland U.S. Scoring tickets to this “Olympics of hula” can be difficult. Other showcases that are more accessible include Maui’s Hula O Nā Keiki for young dancers; O‘ahu’s Prince Lot Hula Festival; and parades celebrating King Kamehameha Day.

“As hula evolves and becomes popular worldwide, I am constantly engaged in the battle of remember versus forget,” says Kumu de Silva, who will lead her Hālau Mōhala ʻIlima school in this year’s festival. “The hula, chants, stories, and everything that we received—the reason they were given to us was so that they would survive. We go to Merrie Monarch so our line of hula and our adherence to tradition is put in the records year after year.”

From the stage to the resort

In recent years, younger lū‘au performers have also shifted the tradition back to its roots. When Afatia Thompson’s parents started Tihati Productions in 1969, the lū‘au they produced at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, was typical of the era, a mishmash of dances, songs, and costumes from all over Polynesia.

“Back then, the people who put on lū‘au shows didn’t really know that there were differences in those cultures,” says Thompson. “They just wanted the shows to look pretty and sound good.”

When Thompson and his sister took over the lū‘au in 2007, they changed its programming to focus on the stories, histories, and context of the dances. Their show highlights hula and traditional Hawaiian skills, such as poi pounding. “We go beneath the surface of just entertainment and teach our guests history,” he says.

In addition to lūʻaus, tourists can catch hula performances at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hulihe‘e Palace in Kailua-Kona, and at shopping centers.

Although it seems improbable, large resorts—which once tokenized hula—are now invested in its cultural preservation. Many of them offer hula performances and lessons spearheaded by Hawaiian cultural ambassadors who oversee educational programming.

The Outrigger Reef Waikīkī Beach Resort recently unveiled its new A‘o Cultural Center, which includes an exhibit of Hawaiian artwork, canoe history, and hula lessons, led by director of cultural experience Luana Maitland.

“For me, sharing my culture with others is like breathing—it’s automatic, it’s how I was raised,” says Maitland. “It’s important for the Native Hawaiian community to know that the hospitality industry is providing our visitors with information about Hawai‘i’s history and respecting our island home.”

Wendy Tuivaioge started out at Four Seasons Resort Mauiat Wailea as a concierge in 2011, where she was the go-to person for guests and staff with cultural questions. In 2019, the resort created a new cultural ambassador role for her; she now oversees activities including lei making and hula dancing lessons.

“It is our kuleana, our responsibility, to make sure we get this information to them. I love that the guests can experience it by learning the hula,” says Tuivaioge. “I will teach anyone who wants to learn the culture. There was a time when everything was underground. If we don’t teach it, it could fade away again.”

Rachel Ngis a Hawai‘i-based writer specializing in travel, culture, and food. Follow her on Instagram.

Some photos and photo captions in this story have been updated.