By Emmaly Wiederholt, painting by Julia Cost
I witnessed hula for the first time a few years back at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The lush sensual movements paired with the evident deep sense of purpose the dancers carried themselves with made it obvious to me that hula was more than grass skirts and a ukulele. To learn more about hula I got in touch with Patrick Makuakāne, the director of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, a prominent halau (or hula school) based in San Francisco. Makuakāne is a kumu hula, or hula master, an achievement that connects Mr. Makuakāne to a hula lineage stretching back for generations. I spoke with him to learn more about hula and its relevance in today’s world.
Emmaly Wiederholt: I did a little bit of research, and it seems there is a form of hula that refers to how it was practiced before Westerners came to Hawai’i, and there is a form that developed after. Can you speak to that? Is there one form you feel is more authentic?
Patrick Makuakāne: Let me explain it a little bit more because there’s some common confusion. Basically hula is broken down into two categories. One is hula kahiko, and that means ancient, as “kahiko” means ancient or traditional. That’s hula that is accompanied by chanting and percussive instruments such as a drum or a gourd or rattlers of sorts. The other kind of hula is called hula ‘auana. Hula ‘auana is a more contemporary kind of dancing that is accompanied usually with singing as well as Western instruments such as the guitar, bass, or ukulele. Hula ‘auana came out of the late 19th century. It’s a little bit more languid and less sort of rigid, and has much more of a Western influence. Hula kahiko uses chanting and the movements are closer to the ground. There’s a lot of squatting, like a plié, with the feet kept very close and tight to the ground. What’s interesting is that in both genres, even in hula kahiko, you can write a chant today. It might be performed in the hula kahiko style, but it can also be a modern chant.
EW: Hula is still evolving then? You can create new hula?
PM: Yes absolutely. Both of them are evolving. Often times when people see hula kahiko and they hear the chanting and the drumming, they assume it’s more traditional, though it’s not necessarily more traditional. It just depends on the content. Although traditional hula kahiko dances form a certain legacy. I come from a certain hula legacy, and there are certain dances that go along with that legacy, passed on from teacher to student and so on and so forth. It has a lineage; we learn those dances and pass them on.
EW: Which form of hula do you practice most commonly?
PM: Most companies, like myself, practice both. And you had a very good question earlier: does one feel more authentic than the other? One is newer than the other, but both can feel very authentic and Hawai’ian, or conversely both can feel very contemporary and modern. It depends on which dance you’re doing. Some dances in the hula ‘auana were choreographed in the 1920s so they have a very nostalgic feel to them. They feel traditional even though they’re only a century old.
EW: I’m curious about what the role of hula is in the social fabric of Hawai’ian culture? Is it a tourist attraction? Obviously it also has historical and religious significance. In your experience with hula when does it cross?
PM: That’s a really good question. In the 1970s Hawai’i experienced something called the Hawai’ian Cultural Renaissance, and Hawai’ians at that time (I was in my teens) were asking, “What is our native identity? Where does it come from? Who are we as Hawai’ians?” Many of us, including myself, found that answer in hula. Hula served as a vehicle to teach us because hula is synonymous with Hawai’ian culture. You learn the pantheon of gods, the history, the mythology, the ancestral beings, the symbiotic relationship with nature, and the deep love and respect for the natural surroundings. You learn how Hawai’ians love; there are a million love chants. Some of them are so exquisitely written they just break your heart. You get an idea about how people felt towards one another, how they felt about their gods, how they felt about agriculture, how they felt about stars, the ocean. All of that is written in the chants associated with hula. So for myself as a young Hawai’ian man I was able to learn about my culture through hula. And I would venture to say that is how a great number of young Hawai’ians are learning about hula, even here in the Bay Area. Hula is so inextricably woven into the fabric of Hawai’i. I would say it is one of the most important cultural practices we have. And there is nothing comparable to learning and living your culture like doing it through dance.
EW: Do you feel hula often becomes stereotyped?
PM: Yeah, a lot of people consider hula a simple minded dance done in a grass skirt that has no meaning, but there is so much depth to hula, as I just explained. So much history and information; it’s really the story of our culture. And how amazing is it that you get to dance that story? In my company I have people who have been dancing for me for over twenty five years. They never leave because they’re making such a strong connection to their culture through hula.
EW: I’m curious about hula performed in Hawai’i versus out of Hawai’i. Can you speak to that?
PM: I danced hula in Hawai’i for about ten years before I moved to the Bay Area and started my own company, and I’ve been here for almost thirty years. Is it any different? Yeah it’s different because you’re not on Hawai’ian soil, but you dance hula for the same reasons. We have recitals and performances, family get-togethers, dances with friends at a party, dive bars that play Hawai’ian music, etc. For myself, you don’t lose any authenticity because you’re not in Hawai’i. Where it becomes a problem however is if you have somebody who’s maybe learning hula from a teacher who is not really established and they’re teaching without having a strong foundation. You have to be really careful.
People associate hula so much with Hawai’i but these days hula is really expanding. It has become an economic means for many teachers in Hawai’i to open up studios. You would not believe it but hula in Japan is huge. There are more people dancing hula in Japan than there are in Hawai’i. A lot of teachers are finding they can make money teaching in Japan that will sustain them. Of course some people have problems with that. How do you find balance?
EW: The Merrie Monarch Festival is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Is your company going to be in it?
PM: No, we’ve never entered Merrie Monarch, and the reason is mostly financial because it’s very expensive, and also, I’d much rather do an evening performance than a competition. In a competition you only have six minutes; I want an hour and a half. I find it much more fulfilling. But funny you should mention it because my halau, my school from when I was dancing in Hawai’i, is going back for the fiftieth anniversary to perform in an exhibition evening. I am going back to dance as well, so it’s very special.
Mr. Makuakāne forwarded me this article with additional information.