Traditional Hawaiian Dances

Updated March 26, 2019
Traditional Hawaiian Dancers performing at luau

Traditional dance in Hawaii is the hula, and it is steeped in ancient traditions with a fascinating and intricate history that is only made more intriguing given the storytelling element of the different dances. Hula dance is a beloved and cherished cultural tradition on the Hawaiian islands. Within the many types of hula there are two that are best known: Hula Kahiko and Hula ʻAuana.

Hula Kahiko

The word kahiko (kah-hee-ko) means ancient and primitive and Hula Kahiko is known as the ancient hula, having roots dating back to long before Western culture became known. These dances are accompanied by chants, called oli (oh-lee), which combine with the movements to tell stories of the different islands and their beauty, the exploits of royalty, people of those islands, major events, and travelers. It was the way that history was preserved and celebrated giving it great depth and meaning for the people of Hawaii, and the meaning is still relevant today.

These videos demonstrate the difference between wahine (wah-he-nay, meaning women) and kane (ka-nay, meaning men) dances, and include performances from the Merrie Monarch Festival, a hula competition held in Hilo, Hawaii, that celebrates Hawaiian tradition in song and dance.

Types of Hula Kahiko

It is worth noting that the type of dance dictates what kind of hula is being performed, but the style of the hula is actually attributed to the hālau (ha-lau, meaning school), creating a range of interpretations on the same subjects and lending to incredible diversity among presentations.

Hula Ali'i

Hula Ali'i (ah-lee-ee) is created for or in honor of a chief or monarch. This dance can be done in numerous forms, with or without props. The main element is the chant that tells a story about the subject.

Hula `Ili`ili

Hula `Ili`ili (ee-lee ee-lee) is a dance performed with water-worn, smooth pebbles. Each dancer has their own personal `Ili`ili as they must fit two stones correctly into each hand and have a sound when clicked together that is pleasing to the ear.

Hula Holoholona

Dances about animals are called Hula Holoholana (hoh-loh-hoh-lah-nah) in which dancers imitate the animal's sounds and movements. These dances pay homage to animals such as honu (hoh-nu, turtle), `îlio (ee-lee-oh, dog), manô (ma-no, shark), and pua`a (poo-ah-ah, pig), among others, and can be done standing, sitting, scooting, or in any combination that is representative of the creature.

Hula Pele

Pele (peh-leh) is the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes. These dances are often as high in energy and intensity as the goddess herself and talk about her journeys and relationships.

While these are but a few of the types of Kahiko Hula, there are many hālau that create and perform these dances to continue this proud and rich Hawaiian tradition.

Hula ʻAuana

The modern hula is called Hula ʻAuana (oh-wan-ah) and was created in response to Western influences that came to the islands. ʻAuana means to wander or ramble, which aligns with the deviation of this particular type of hula as it drifted away from the sacred elements intrinsic to Hula Kahiko. It encompasses the sensibilities of those who were not native, becoming less formal and more interactive with the audience. While Hula ʻAuana also tells stories through movement and song, it is contemporary in nature and what most people think, in a generic sense, of hula dancing. Hula ʻAuana is performed with a variety of musical instruments, including the ukulele and steel guitar.

These examples show the diversity and contemporary spin of the Hula 'Auana as compared to the ancient dances above.

Hula Hapa Haole

Hula Hapa (hah-pah) Haole (how-lee) literally means "part foreign," and speaks to the Westernization of the hula. It uses English words in the lyrics instead of the Hawaiian language. The example below uses a new rendition of an old song called Hapa Haole Hula Gal and uses some old footage which well illustrates the reference.

Hula ʻAuana is what most people think of when referencing hula dancing. This is due to performances staged for movies and television that often prefer the use of the English language and a friendlier, more approachable vibe. More recently, this has been changing as a growing interest in Hula Kahiko and its origins is being recognized by people outside of the Hawaiian islands. While the general world population will have greater familiarity with the dancing, different costumes, and wonderful music featuring both native and more familiar instruments of Hula ʻAuana, it is still clearly defined by the storytelling element, in direct response to the external influences that dictated cultural change.

Hawaiian Dance Culture and Tradition

While Hula Kahiko and Hula ʻAuana both include a wide range of dances and interpretations, there are other hula types that fall under different determinations. Among those who actively study and engage in the hula culture, it is clearly understood hula requires dedicated research, practice, and continuing education for cultural preservation.

Merrie Monarch Festival

One of the preeminent organizations in promoting the culture is the Merrie Monarch Festival. Dating back to 1963 when it was founded by the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, the non-profit group continues to grow the interest in the culture of Hawaii through their annual week-long festival and hula competition, bringing together people throughout Hawaii and from around the world eager to learn more about the history of the islands.

Survival of Native Culture

Hula has a beautiful history and unique story that continues to lend an air of mystique to the islands and its people. Whether dancing Hula Kahiko or Hula ʻAuana, the hula will thrive with continued and growing interest, enduring as a sacred and beloved tradition of the Hawaiian islands.

Traditional Hawaiian Dances