Guide to Hawaiian Hula Dancing

Hula is a form of Polynesian dance that involves fluid movements that tell a story. Hawaii is famous for its luaus where traditional hula dances are performed to entertain tourists of the Hawaiian Islands. There are two types of hula dance in existence today. The hula kahiko is the ancient form of the dance, once performed as a paganistic ritual to the fire goddess, Pele. The hula auana is the modern form of the dance, commonly seen at parties and luaus.

Hula History and How-To

Learn how to Hula Dance

There are many stories surrounding the origin of hula dancing. The most commonly heard story is that the fire goddess Pele had her sister Laka dance for her. This dancing evolved into what people now know as hula. In the 1820’s, Christian missionaries banned the art of hula since they didn’t approve of the movements nor the costumes. In the 1830’s, King Kamehameha III granted religious freedom to the islands and hula once again became a popular form of dance. 

Hula is a form of interpretive dance and those who practice the ancient form of the dance can tell the rich history of the Hawaiian people and the islands through the dance. Historically, hula was accompanied by chanting rather than music and the hula movements helped interpret the story told by the chanting. These dances were more somber than the dances seen today. The hula performed today is more joyous and accompanied by musical instruments, such as drums, sticks, and instruments made from coconut shells. 

Schools that teach both the ancient and modern forms of hula are called a halau. There are some basic steps that anyone can follow to do a general hula dance. The kaholo step involves standing upright with knees slightly bent and toes forward. The dancer then takes a step to the right with the right foot and brings the left foot in to meet it. The step is then reversed to the left and repeated throughout the dance. The ami step involves performing the kaholo step but adding hand motions and hip shakes, instead of moving left and right. The arms start above the head in a U shape and slowly travel down as the hips are moved clockwise and then counterclockwise.

  • City of Albuquerque has a general history of hula and the luau and how the Hawaaian culture has spread to the mainland.
  • PBS has a listing of different hula hand gestures and how to make them.
  • Hula Steps is a website that defines the different types of terms used when discussing the art of hula.
  • Hula Instruments is an extensive list of the sorts of instruments used to accompany a hula dance. 
  • Hula Movements a list of different hula moves as well as some additional resources about hula and Hawaii.

Hula’s Purpose

Most people are familiar with the modern form of hula. The main difference between the two forms is that ancient hula was often performed in a seated position, while today’s dancers usually stand. Through the use of hand motions and the accompanying music or chant, hula is able to relay a story without having to use words. Whether performed for a large audience or at a small celebration, the purpose of hula is the represent the culture of the Hawaiian people and the islands. 

Virtual Festival: Hula in Hawai'i has video samples of hula auana.


Written by