Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Nina Kuna & Ryan Siphers
A few years ago, I witnessed an astonishing performance at the Merrie Monarch Festival. A handsome young kumu hula (hula teacher) strode onto the stage, carrying an enormous staff. Chanting melodiously, Kau‘ionalani Kamana‘o stamped his staff against the floor, and struck it repeatedly with a small stick. As the clear peal of native kauila wood rang out, the dancers of Hula Halau o Kamuela flowed from the four corners of the stage to its center. Each dancer placed a papa hehi (wooden treadle) at her feet, and raised a pair of kala‘au (percussive sticks). Swaying as one, the dancers clacked their sticks against their neighbor’s, and tapped a second rhythm on the treadles. Each tap reverberated through the auditorium like the Earth’s own heartbeat.
The sounds of hula kahiko, the oldest style of Hawaiian dance, are deep, resonant, and hypnotic. In contrast to modern hula (which is typically accompanied by Western-derived stringed instruments, such as the slack-key guitar or ‘ukulele), ancient hula is purely percussive. Hula kahiko dancers often make their own music, and, as I discovered while watching Hula Halau o Kamuela, the sounds are as significant as the movements. The creation and mastery of traditional hula implements is both an art and a sacred practice passed down through generations.
To learn more, I consulted with Hokulani Holt. She comes from a long line of kumu hula, and has the regal carriage and natural expressiveness of a lifelong hula practitioner. Trained by her mother, the renowned Leiana Long Woodside, Holt opened her own halau (school), Pa‘u o Hi‘iaka, in the 1970s. Her students learn as she did, first to move their bodies with fluid precision and then to handle instruments.
Novices start with the kala‘au, learning to strike them so that they ring, rather than thunk, says Holt. Next up are pu‘ili, split bamboo sticks that produce marvelous rustling sounds when brushed against the body. Performing with the flamboyant feather gourd rattles, ‘uli‘uli, builds arm muscles, says Holt. “Your hands have to twist. You have to hang on so the gourds don’t fly away, and you have to shake them hard.”
Dancing in the tight formation characteristic of hula kahiko requires profound proprioception — a sense of one’s body in relation to others. It’s a skill that likely informs a hula practitioner’s life on and off the stage. When mastered, dancers’ movements appear as effortless as a school of fish surging with the current, or the multiple petals of a single flower opening to the sun. Adding instruments engages an appreciable level of difficulty and depth.
The papa hehi that so impressed me are reserved for advanced dancers, who can tap out separate rhythms with their hands and feet, perform complex choreographies, and chant — simultaneously. The concentration required boggles my mind.
Kumu hula play the primary hula instruments: the pahu, a large, deep-voiced drum carved from the trunk of a coconut or breadfruit tree, and the ipu heke, a drum formed out of two joined gourds. The rhythmic drumbeats dictate the pace of the performance.