Hula, originally called Ha’a, is steeped with legend. Some say it originated on Molokai as a dance between a god and a goddess from the South Seas. Others say it originated as a dance performed for the Volcano goddess, Pele. That hula has been part of Hawaiian culture since ancient times, perhaps even from before there were people living in the islands now called Hawaiian, is clear from the many different traditions concerning its origin.
Various places, among them the islands of Hawaii, Molokai, Oahu, and Kaua`i claim to be hula’s birthplace and link its beginnings to a number of gods and humans. Some claim that Hi`iaka’s friend Hopoe was the first dancer. Others call Kapo’ulakina’u the first divine patron of hula or cite the long and beautiful story of Keaomelemele as the foundation myth of dance. Still others connect its origins with various forms of the pan-polynesian culture hero, the great navigator Laka/La’a/Lata.
When the dance begins, women move to poetic chants performed by men. And a popular mele – a chant – is one that describes the story of Hi’aka and Pele. The men relay the poetry and the female dancers play it out in expressive form. Musicians playing sharkskin drums, rattles, gourds and castanets accompany the chanting.
Traditionally the women wear wrapped skirts made of cloth and the men wear loincloths. Both wore leis, bracelets and necklaces as they do today, and after the ritual dance, they place their leis on the altar of Laka as an offering of flowers to the goddess.
However, hula was, and is, more than a ritual dance. It’s the Hawaiian way of keeping a historical record. Before Western contact, hula was for social enjoyment but its chants also preserved epic tales, myths, history and philosophy.
As Hawaii has changed, hula has also evolved. The hula girl became a popular romantic image depicted in travel brochures beckoning adventurers to visit the Islands.