Hula Girl

Every once in a while, when I’m hanging out with friends and we do the thing where you get on youtube and show each other cool videos, we end up watching hula videos, and my friends are always amazed, and I realise that while practically everyone has heard of hula, few people actually know what it really looks like.  The best representation you get of it outside of Hawaii may be the dancing scenes in Lilo and Stitch, which is kinds weird and sad when you think about it.

Practicing hula with my sister thedreamstress.com

Practicing hula with my sister

Like Lilo, I was in a hula  hālau  (a hula troop/school) as a child.  It’s just what little girls in Hawaii did, like little girls everywhere else take ballet.  I was never particularly good, but I enjoyed the grace of it, and the history and story behind each dance.  My baby sister was an amazing dancer, but being a  haole  (white) hula dancer in Hawaii is problematic.  As a dark haired Filipina or Japanese girl, you can dance professionally, and be in the best  hālau  (troops), but if you are pale skinned and have white-blond hair, you’ll be tucked in the back row, and you’ll never compete in the biggest hula festival in Hawaii: the Merrie Monarch Festival.  Because of this (and simply not being very good) I gave it up as a teenager, and have rarely danced in the last decade.  I did a hula for Mr D at our wedding (a Hawaii tradition) and danced for Nana’s 90th birthday, at her request, but mostly I just listen to Hawaiian music and feel homesick.

Dancing hula at my wedding, thedreamstress.com

Dancing a hula for Mr D at my wedding

There are actually two main distinct styles of hula: hula kahiko, the ancient hula, based on the pre-contact style of dancing, and hula ‘auana, the modern hula, which incorporates modern instruments, and Western influences.

Hula kahiko is more rhythmic, and is danced in modern interpretations of ancient Hawaiian dress: usually with the dancers in full skirts gathered to the waist with rows and rows of elastic.  Hula kahiko are dedicated to a god or goddess, or to a member of the ali’i (royalty).  The costumes and flowers worn with the dance are all symbolic.  In this example, the colours of the dancers tops and the spots on their pa’u (skirts), as well as the feathers in the ‘uli’uli rattles they dance with, all allude to the peacock, beloved of Princess Ka’i’ulani, who the dance is dedicated to.  Their yellow lei are also associated with the tragic princess, and their white petticoats and bloomers reflect the late Victorian dress she would have worn.

Hula ‘Auana are on many themes: they tell the story of a place, or of the writer’s love for a person.    There are even hula ‘auana in praise of all the authors favourite foods – or in mocking despair over the difficulties of their weekly exercise class.  Hula ‘auana  can be soft and slow, or fast and ‘rascally’.

Though it isn’t as common in modern times, men also dance hula, both kahiko and ‘auana.  These days, men’s kahiko is slightly more prevalent, perhaps because it is visually more obviously manly, and perhaps (to put it rather crassly) because fit men in loincloths are generally popular 😉


  1. So beautiful – thanks for sharing! My sister-in-law did a hula dance for her wedding to my brother, and everybody cried. It really is a lovely dance form.

      • They eventually moved to Germany, where she’s from. Huge change of climate and culture! I’m lucky I got to visit Hawaii while they still lived there.

        • Whoops – didn’t answer your question. She and my brother met in Hawaii and lived there for 7 or 8 years. He’s from Montana like me. They are a very well-traveled pair.

  2. This was a very interesting post, thanks!

    There seems to be some words missing at the end of the paragraph right under the photograph of you dancing the hula at your wedding; The last sentence ends “Whether ancient or modern, each hula tells a story, and is dedicated to….”

    • Oh dear! My fault for getting distracted by all the youtube videos whilst trying to write a blog at the same time! Thanks for catching that, and I’ve corrected it.

  3. As a dancer, I always love seeing new styles and this was especially beautiful! I’ll refrain from having the dancer geek-out moment, but suffice it to say, I loved this! Thank you so much. 🙂

  4. Dear Leimomi,

    No wonder you become homesick. The hula is magical and lovely.

    Very best,


    • I think those of us from Hawaii are both blessed and cursed: we’re so lucky to be from a place like that, but being away from it is so hard. I do love Wellington though, so it’s hard to think of going back. In the perfect world I’d spend 6 months in each place – and get to dance swing and hula and vintage ballroom!

  5. Tav Tögni says

    Your Hawaii themed postings are always fascinating. I’ve read many of them in the blog archives, and there’s always so many things I knew nothing of.

    • Thanks Tav. I really appreciate the feedback, and knowing that people enjoy getting a little glimpse into the world I grew up in.

    • Oh yes! The one where they play the papa hehi (foot shuttle). I almost showed that one, but wasn’t sure everyone would get it. Hula is pretty physically demanding – it makes a good exercise workout!

  6. Anyonypilgrim says

    Thank you so much. That was both beautiful and educational.

  7. I’ll always remember the night you showed me and Sharon the hula videos and did some for us. It was leaps and bounds away from the Hawai’ian resort hula I’ve only seen on tv, and it really made an impression.

    Thanks for sharing your culture with us (and yes, it is your culture, too, even if you’re blonde!).

    • That was a wonderful evening. We should do it again soon!

      And yes, I definitely think that it’s my culture, I just hate the part where you have to look a certain way to be able to pursue dancing. It’s stupid and racist. If it were only Hawaiians it would be one thing!

      • I live in Vermont and there is an African dance troupe here made up of white women pretty much exclusively. I have never really liked seeing them dance–it stinks of appropriation to me. And it gets weirder and weirder as we get more and more African refugees and immigrants living here.

        We blonde haired blue eyed chicks have way more opportunities in the performing arts than our native and other brown skinned sisters.

        • Elise says

          You are right: It is a funny topic. Appropriation on one hand and pure joy of art on the other. I was lucky in Hawaii to be just “dark” enough to blend in where I wanted (and learned pidgin super quickly).

          It’s nice to be in a community (even online) that is able to point out the unfairness. That’s the first step in moving past the racism, sexism, and other -isms. But how do you go about addressing it? There are still so few black ballerinas, and that film about the white family taking in the black football player was sickening in its patronizing tone. We never learn about Juneteenth in mainstream (white-driven) American schools, although it is part of our heritage. Color-blindness be damned in America.

          So what do we DO?

          • Elise says

            I guess, rather this: You cannot help falling in love with an art form, just like you cannot help falling in love with a person no matter if that person is the same race/nationality or different–even if the person is same or different sex.

            So what is the next step in letting everyone do the art form they want?

            One thing I really admire about Leimomi on the HSF is that there are several “non-white” participants working on European-dress, and she comments on each work on its own merit. There is no “Well you should do X because that’s where you are from”, and if someone does put together something non-occidental, then that piece is also viewed in its own merit. I think she does a lot in her sphere to ensure that everyone has access.

  8. Lynne says

    Thank you for sharing! That was a delight. It also partly explains the graceful way you move your hands!

  9. Thank you for this..Living in Hawaii for 12 years I have seen a lot of Hula but I am still in awe of it’s beauty and can watch for hours…
    I knew someone (white) who danced professional for many years…wearing a long black wig…she was one of the best but yes never in the front….

    Thank you again…

    • You’re welcome! I sometimes think about things like this, and how for everything we have a simple mental picture of there are layers and layers of knowledge and meaning, and we simply can’t know all the things for all the things. It’s quite humbling and awe inspiring.

  10. Lylassandra says

    Thank you for posting this– I’ve never seen hula kahiko before, it’s amazing!

    I love your posts about Hawaii– it’s so interesting to me that another part of my country has such beautiful, amazing traditions that are so different from mine. Likewise all your NZ posts–it’s another part of the world that I feel a certain kinship towards (as another English-speaking country) but it’s got a totally different history and culture that I love hearing about.

    Sometimes I hope reincarnation is true just so I can do a “stint” in every place on Earth… =)

    • You’re welcome! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      I do try to post about Hawaii & NZ, because I love reading blogs about places in the world I have never been, whether it is Hana Marmota’s Czech Republic, or Princess Lasertron’s Omaha. You get such a sense of ‘place’ seeing how a real person experiences the world through their life and what they do and see and make.

      I don’t know if I want to live everywhere, but I do know that when I travel I like to meet real people and stay in one place and do a few ordinary things instead of just the tourist bits!

  11. Halima says

    I can’t believe you chose my favourite – the hula in honour of the princess Ka’i’ulani- aweeeeee !
    I grew up in Hawaii as well, and always considered it a great mixing pot of people- so it’s interesting what you said about the underlying prejudice in hula performance. I always wanted to take hula like my school friends but never had the time. I guess it’s just as well, because they probably would have hidden me in the back as I’m a blonde haole like your sister!
    Really enjoy your website – and your cute cat-keep up the good work!

  12. Connie says

    I very much relate to your story. I too was born and raised in Hawaii. (Oahu) and like all little girls, I danced hula. I always knew I looked different than all the other girls, tall, gangly, blond hair. But inside I felt like one of them. Now I live in California, where I definitely do NOT stand out, however, my heart and home are still Hawaii. I was fortunate enough to find a Halau and I am able to get a little bit of home here in California. I appreciate your love for hula and couldn’t imagine a more beautiful form of dancing. Hula = Life……..thank you!

  13. Lylassandra says

    Posting again waaaayyy after the fact to say that I just showed these videos to my daughter (age 4) because her class did “Mele Kalikimaka” for her Christmas show today. She was fascinated to see the real thing and asked lots of questions. Thank you again for this post!

    • Posting again after the fact isn’t a problem, because I see new comments in chronological order. And I love hearing that people are coming back and enjoying old posts! Thank you!

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