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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2003

Museum exhibit traces history of hula attire

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Fashion Writer

This holoku was worn by a dancer at Honolulu Harbor in 1934.

Photos by Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Just in time for the Merrie Monarch Festival, the Bishop Museum has opened "Hula: Dance of Poetry," its first-ever focus on Hawai'i's native dance.

For those who plan to attend the festival in Hilo, or to watch the "Olympics of Hula" on TV today through Saturday, this exhibit is a must-see.

It's a daunting task to attempt to document hula. For the curator, Noelani Kapuaakuni Tachera, the museum's cultural education specialist, it is an act of love, passion — and courage, because hula often exists in a competitive, fractious environment.

Tachera is kumu hula of Halau Hula Keanuenue'ulana'ia in Ko'olaupoko (Kane'ohe) and has a 35-year history with the dance. Understanding that hula has many voices, she put together an advisory panel of kumu hula and composers to help determine her approach to the complex cultural subject.

The exhibit interprets hula through the voices of legendary kumu hula, including 'Iolani Luahine, Mary Kawena Puku'i, Kau'i Zuttermeister and Joseph Ilala'ole, as well as those who follow in their footsteps to preserve and perpetuate hula today.

Although the exhibit focuses on many of the deeper aspects of hula — cultural, anthropological, social — this story concentrates on the costumes as researched in the Bishop Museum archives.

'Hula: Dance of Poetry'
  • 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • Now through June 1
  • Bishop Museum, Castle Building
  • Admission: $7.95 (adults), $6.95 (12 and younger)
Although it is commonly thought that hula was only allowed to be danced by men in its earliest years, Tachera said there are documents dating to 1778 that indicate both men and women danced hula. In those years, the dance was limited to kahiko, a style that developed before 1893, when the monarchy was overthrown.

The earliest known hula garments were the malo (loincloth) for men and the pa'u for women. Both were made of kapa, also known as tapa, fabric made from the wauke or mamaki bark.

This pa'u hula consists of five layers of kapa. It is believed to have been worn by someone of high rank because of the complexity of the design.

This kupe'e, worn on the wrist of a male hula dancer, was crafted from 19 boar's tusks.

This is the earliest known photo of hula dancers, dated 1858, from the Bishop Museum archives.
The museum displays a pa'u that hula archivists believe was worn by a woman of high rank. It has four layers. The top layer, called a kilohana, is decorated with a complex design created by using 'ohe kapala, or bamboo stamps, and natural dyes. The piece also indicates to museum experts that it was worn by someone from a cold place, such as the mauka areas of the Big Island, because of its heaviness and its waterproofing with kukui nut oil.

These early hula costumes were accessorized with kupe'e made of a variety of natural materials, including dog teeth and boar tusks.

Bishop Museum photos indicate that in 1858, cotton calico fabrics were introduced and bare feet gave way to knee-high boots. In an odd juxtaposition, some photos even show opaque white hose worn under the boots.

In the 1880s, sugar plantation workers from the Gilbert Islands introduced grass skirts, worn with strapless tops. Kupe'e were then made of hau, and both floral and green lei accessorized the hula costumes.

In 1883, at the coronation of King Kalakaua, hula was publicly danced for the first time in 40 years. The dance had gone underground, assailed as a pagan practice. Kalakaua revived it because, he said, hula was at the soul of his people.

An 1885 photo shows members of a hula troupe wearing white blouses with gathered calico skirts, bloomers, opaque white stockings, and leaf lei po'o (head lei).

In the roaring 20s, hula costumes sometimes took on a decidedly flapperlike flair. A photo on the sheet music for "At the Hula Hula Ball" by Billy Vanderveer shows an odd pairing: multiple strands of beads draped around the dancer's neck and from her waist — over a grass skirt.

The 1930s brought to hula elegant, long holoku with ruffles and trains and knee-length lei.

'Hula: Dance of Poetry'

Schedule of activities and performances:

• Sunday: Performances by Joan S. Lindsey Hula Studio and Ka Pa Hula O Lilinoe with Kumu Hula Joan S. Lindsey and Lilinoe Lindsey.

• May 4: Melvin Lantaka teaches visitors to make seed and shell lei.

• May 11: Performance by Halau Hula O Hokulani with Kumu Hula Hokulani DeRego.

• May 18: Bill Char teaches visitors to make wili and haku fern lei.

• May 25: Calvin and Keliko Hoe lead a workshop on 'ohe hano ihu (Hawaiian flutes).

Events will be held at noon each Sunday at the Bishop Museum, through June 1.

Museum admission: $14.95 adults, $11.95 ages 4-12, free 4 and younger. Discounts for kama'aina, seniors and military.

Information: 847-3511 or www.bishopmuseum.org.

It is believed that the cellophane skirt, worn with a bathing suit or halter top, was introduced as hula attire early in the 1930s, Tachera said.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, attire for kahiko hula (the ancient style) returned to its roots as dancers went into the forests to find hala, wauke, nuts, greenery and flowers with which to adorn themselves.

For 'auana, or modern hula, costumes are determined entirely by kumu hula.

Victoria Holt-Takamine, a kumu hula and judge for the Merrie Monarch, said it's necessary to determine what is appropriate for each dance.

"I always look at how the dancers will be able to move in the garment. They'll be less able to interpret the text if their movement is hampered. And the text is everything," Holt-Takamine said.

At some point in the mid-20th century, crinolines became popular in place of grass skirts to create an ancient dancer's silhouette.

Kumu hula Robert Cazimero remembers employing Pellon, a material commonly used for interfacing, to make skirts for his halau, Na Kamalei, in 1976.

This practice has continued in many halau, as Pellon mimics the drape of kapa but is far easier to obtain, dye and manipulate.

The paniolo look was sported at the Merrie Monarch Festival by the men of Halau i ka Wekiu.
When Cazimero joined Auntie Maiki Aiu Lake's hula class, she assigned him a flower, the lehua blossom, and a color, blue. He now passes these on to his students as they graduate and open their own hula halau. The designated flowers and colors often guide a kumu in making costume decisions.

Asked why dancers wear pa'u skirts to practice hula, Holt-Takamine said that when dancers take off their shoes they are putting the day behind them and when they put on their pa'u they are placing themselves in a space and time to devote themselves entirely to hula.

At the museum

"Hula: Dance of Poetry" requires several hours to fully appreciate. In addition to the archival photos, there are several videos and interactive computer screens. One screen lists all of the winners of the Merrie Monarch Festival since the contest began 40 years ago. KITV has provided highlights of contests for all of the years they have been televising it.

On another screen, Puakea Nogelmeier narrates "Spirit of the Hula," featuring interviews with kumu hula explaining the importance of nature and the deities associated with hula.

Merrie Monarch Hula Competition
  • Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium, Hilo
  • 6 p.m. tonight, tomorrow, Saturday; Miss Aloha Hula, tonight; group hula kahiko, tomorrow; group hula 'auana, Saturday.
  • Airing live nightly on KITV-4.
The Hula Preservation Society's computer lists 13 kumu hula and kupuna to whom the participant can ask questions such as: "What are your first memories of hula?" and "What do you think of hula today?"

Another screen shows a 1930s hula lesson. For the keiki, there's a little area where they can try on hula costumes and lei while participating in a video hula lesson.

The exhibit continues upstairs to the Hula Theater, where there are four one-hour videos on hula.

Not to be missed is a decades-old archival film clip of the Beamer 'ohana showing a kahiko hula. Immediately following is a current video of Tachera's daughter dancing the same kahiko. Every motion is repeated exactly — an illustration of how hula is replicated from generation to generation.

Hula honors gods, chiefs and loved ones. It tells stories, records genealogies, injects humor and celebrates life. And as is admirably illustrated in this exhibit, it embodies the Hawaiian worldview of nature, religion, relationships and self.