The history of Hawaiian Hula dance is entrenched in the story of colonialism and the preservation of the Hawaiian culture. The dance is almost synonymous with the islands themselves.
Rooted in Sacred Ceremony
Originally, the Hula dance was developed as part of the religious traditions of the Pacific Islands, and is in some ways historically linked to Asian dancing. The full name of the traditional form was Hula Kahiko and it was used to honor and entertain the chiefs, especially when they traveled from place to place. The dance had many motions and meanings, ranging from the elements of nature to things as specific as praising their leader's fertility. The different hula dance steps have different meanings, though these have been lost to most dancers and audiences of the hula dance.
Dancing the hula was traditionally very serious business. In fact, if mistakes were made in these very serious ceremonial performances, not only did they negate any positive things that were being celebrated, but the flawed dances were also considered to be portentous omens of bad luck! In order to safely learn the steps, in fact, dancers who were just beginning to learn dances being taught by the kumu hula (literally source of knowledge) needed to be put under the protection of the Goddess Laka in order to be shielded from the consequences of their missteps.
Costumes of the Hula
The popular culture has hula dancers wearing coconut bras, leis, and grass skirts, which betray the prudishness that has been passed on by the first Western travelers to encounter the true Hawaiian costumes. Actually, the women were topless, not for any puerile reasons but simply because the female breast was not considered anything to be ashamed of or covered. Female hula dancers wore the same kind of skirt they normally would, called pāʻū, not grass. Sometimes they would wear several yards of the material (called tapa) to show off, along with many necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and floral leis. Male dancers (the dance was commonly performed by both sexes) wore loincloths, accessorizing with the same kinds of jewelry and leis as their female counterparts.
Interestingly, wearing the lei and tapa for the dance imbued them with an aura of sacredness that meant they were not to be worn after the dance - instead, they were offered as sacrifices to the Goddess Laka in the halau or school for hula dancers.
In 1820, when American Protestant missionaries saw the dance, they found that the costumes and motions aroused sexual feelings in them despite the intended sacred and innocent nature of the dances. As they converted the Hawaiian royalty, they urged the rulers to ban the dance. While it was publicly shunned for a time, privately it remained an essential part of the culture, and King David Kalakaua and Princess Ruth Keelikolani were instrumental in reviving the art and encouraging their countrymen (this was before Hawaii was annexed) to maintain the traditions of the older arts.
Modern History of Hawaiian Hula Dance
A new form was borne out of this admonishment by the royalty, known as hula ku'i ("old and new"). Some of the sacred aspects were taken out of the dance, but some traditional instruments were used before the influx of Western string instruments came in. Serious students of the hula still were devoted to the goddess Laka, and religious elements remained a significant part of the practice.
While these dances were sacred, there was another form of hula known as hula 'auana which was more of an entertainment form, especially when visitors began to come to the islands. In the early 1900s the tourist trade began to take off, especially when the dance became featured in Hollywood movies. While many hula dancers capitalized on the popular entertainment aspects of the dance in carnival sideshows, Vegas stages, or other venues catering to tourists, the traditional form also remains alive. Festivals such as the Merrie Monarch Festival celebrate all of the arts of hula, musical and movement based, and the costumes range from the simply traditional through fine formal wear such as mu'umu'u or fancy sashes for the men.
Regardless of the form, the hula is at its root a dance, which is always meant to be enjoyed by dancer and audience alike.