Hula is the traditional Hawaiian dance performed at a luau (Hawaiian party) and other traditional Hawaiian celebrations, and is also used as a ceremonial religious dance throughout the islands. Women usually wear grass skirts, as do male hula dancers, and both male and female dancers always perform bare-footed in the tradition of the ancient Hawaiians. There are two particular types of hula dancing that Hawaiian hula is characterized by:
In the ancient times of Hawaii, as with almost all aspects of life, hula was integrated with traditional religion. Ritual played a key role and dancers — almost always men — were sometimes dedicated to the goddess of hula, Laka. They had to learn hundreds of stylized motions, many of which have survived to this day.
Hula kahiko is a vigorous ancient hula dance, requiring strength and agility. It was and is performed to chants — not music. Hula kahiko is also usually accompanied by pahu or drums of various sizes and types. Some of the drums are as small as a coconut shells, others are ornately carved from large tree trunks. These larger drums were and still are considered so important that some of them have been given names. Some percussion instruments and implements traditionally associated with hula kahiko are also used in the modern form of the dance, including ipu or hollowed gourds used somewhat like a drum by the dancers and chanters, puili or bamboo rattles, and uliuli or feathered gourd rattles that are usually shaken. The dancers also sometimes use iliili or small flat rocks like castanets, sticks to strike together, and even weapons or other implements that are pertinent to a story they are portraying.
The men often wore malo, a type of breech cloth wrap-around, while women as well as the men would sometimes wear voluminous skirts. Dancers adorned themselves with headbands, lei garlands, anklets and wristlets, often woven from various leaves and greenery — for example, the so-called "grass skirt," which in Hawaii is usually made of green ti leaves.
Hula auana, the modern form of the hula dance, is characterized by more fluid, graceful motions — often based on and inspired by their origins in hula kahiko. Beautiful, harmonious island music invariably accompanies hula auana, using guitars, ukulele and other modern instruments. The whole world is familiar with the genre of Hawaiian music that often backs up what most people now think of as, simply, hula. It's even common now days for hula to be performed to non-Hawaiian music. For example, many halau hula or schools include a White Christmas number in their repertoires during the holiday season. To view a unique collection of Hawaiian ornaments, for Christmas and variety of other occasions, please click here.
The dancers often take special pride in their appearance, sometimes using elaborate, even elegant costumes with beautiful floral accents. The headbands of ancient times, which were made of greenery, are now intricately braided with colorful flowers and leaves into what is usually called a haku lei. Some dancers and their hula "families" spend hours and hours gathering and preparing these lei and other adornments.
Halau hula also spend hours practicing under the direction of their respective kumu hula or teachers. Most kumu hula have Hawaiian heritage and share a deep love of the culture. Many also operate their schools as a business, and the haumana or dance students usually pay a monthly fee and supply their own costumes and travel expenses. Like many high school and organizational athletic teams, halau hula often get involved in fundraising to offset some of these expenses. Parents also get involved, shuttling their children to practices and performances. For visitors to the Hawaiian islands, there are many ways to learn about ancient Hawaiian hula, including hula schools and hula demonstrations at typical luaus. There are also symbolic representations of ancient hula in the form of various hula gifts, and hula art that can be used to decorate one's home with a Hawaiian hula theme.