A change in attitude about men and dance adds an exotic level of excitement to hula
The Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition is an almost overwhelming barrage of sights and sounds and scents and people.
But one thing you can count on: When the kane dance, the crowd becomes hysterical. Whether it’s kahiko (ancient style) or auana (modern), people scream and whistle and stand and clap and photograph and are just beside themselves.
While participation by male halau has been growing, they are more sparsely represented — 12 of this year’s 30 entries are male. Men and women compete in different divisions, but the halau with the most points, male or female, wins the overall prize.
Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu recalls that about 45 years ago her mother, Dottie Thompson, a co-founder of the festival as it is known today, had trouble attracting halau to the new event, particularly male halau, which were scarce then. Men were first included in 1976 when there were sufficient numbers to guarantee a fair competition.
Karl Veto Baker, who, with Michael Casupang, is kumu of award-winning Halau I Ka Wekiu, acknowledged that in the early years of the 20th century, it was considered effeminate for men to dance hula, and there were few teachers who took male students.
This began to change with the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s and beyond.
Baker began to dance in 1974 at Kamehameha Schools and said he didn’t care what people thought. He distinctly remembers practicing his moves one day while negotiating his way through the Punahou Carnival. His friends remonstrated, but, he said, “It was my culture and I was so jazzed, I wanted to hula everywhere.”
After he graduated from Robert Cazimero’s halau in 1995, and after a stern talking-to from his kumu to persuade him that teaching was his calling, Baker and Casupang founded Wekiu in 1998. Their kane swept the titles at the 2007 Merrie Monarch and won the overall crown again in 2012.
Their performances, and those of all the men, are eagerly awaited. What is the attraction?
Sonny Ching, Award-winning Merrie Monarch participant with his Halau Na Mamo o Pu‘uanahulu and competition judge
Many of the men are cut like bodybuilders and handsome enough to turn anyone’s heart. But others have more normal body types, yet they too exhibit skill that — especially to anyone who has taken hula — is heart-stopping.
Is it the power of the stomping feet and closed fists, the abrupt movements and arms shooting out? Perhaps it’s the suggestive uehe (a movement in which the knees are opened outward) and ami (hip rotation) and the occasional moments of contrast when the motions are rhythmical and soft.
Or is it just that we don’t see men this way very often? No, it is more.
Cazimero, best known as a singer and composer but at his heart a dancer, denies, as most kumu hula do, that there is a difference between male and female hula. The hands may be folded, not open; the arms may be straight, not flowing, but the story is the same.
Cazimero, whose Halau Na Kamalei o Lililehua won the first Merrie Monarch kane prize, was taught by the great Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake. Hers is a very graceful style, almost feminine — even for the men, with feet not flat, but in certain movements lifting slightly into sensual arcs.
“We have the same hands, the same feet. We tell the same story,” Cazimero insisted. “There is no difference between men and women. The difference is in who taught you, the style they gave you.
“Hula is a story. You are telling that story in the style you have been taught.”
Cazimero differentiates between kanikapila (party) hula and performance hula. In party hula a male may perform any song, even one in which a woman is the central character. In performance this is not done.
Sonny Ching, who has been an award-winning Merrie Monarch participant with his Halau Na Mamo o Pu‘uanahulu and also served as a judge, agrees with Cazimero that there is no difference between men’s and women’s hula.
“It is not the feet, the motions; it is how you put these things together that makes its difference. Sometimes subject will make it better for a male or female to dance,” Ching said.
Baker, whose halau has about 25 male students, sees it just a bit differently.
“Male hula is vigorous, often kolohe (mischievous). It’s just … kane-looking,” he said.
“In our halau the male hula is a little different; it’s not all stomping and slapping. It’s hard to explain but it’s both graceful and strong.”
WE HAVE been told repeatedly that hula was the province of men in pre-contact times.
Yet we are told, too, that hula was given as a gift to the goddess Hi‘iaka, the sister of Pele, by her dear friend Hopoe. It is said the two performed the first hula for Pele at Nanahuki on Hawaii island.
How can both be true? And they are not the only stories: Others exist of the origin of hula, and they vary greatly.
One thing is known: Hula was performed — for ceremonial reasons, for joy and celebration, for royalty, for naming a child, for praising the sexual prowess of the nobility.
Ching understands it this way. “The hula that was the province of men was not the hula that we refer to today, but the ai ha‘a. If we look at the original word for the dance, we find ‘ha‘a‘; the word came along later with the evolution of and various uses of hula. … Only men were allowed to and did the temple ha‘a rituals. … This is where our temple ha‘a rituals evolved. Dances in the temple did not include the ipu (gourd) or any kind of instruments. … Men and women danced (but not in the temple); the ha’a or temple rituals were the province and kuleana of the men.”
Said Baker, “Maybe (the popularity of male hula and its style) is our kupuna telling us, ‘This is where it started.'”
Kumu hula Vicki Holt Takamine of Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima believes that based on the literature, the women’s style was also ai ha‘a, a powerful, thrusting style. The dances were just performed in different contexts and places.
Takamine, a hula instructor at the University of Hawaii and in her own halau, says the move from hula as a dance for both sexes to a dance of women came with Western influences.
“In America, men are not encouraged to dance (solo or in a group) as part of their culture; it was discouraged,” she said.
Baker agrees. “That men should not dance, that is very Western thinking. It was already ingrained” when hula was revived.
So in the 19th and 20th centuries, hula became a woman’s art, largely, a nahenahe (gentle, sweet) celebration of people and places. This was the hula tourists knew. To see men perform was rare outside of family circles. But certain kumu kept their knowledge, and when the Merrie Monarch Festival gained momentum in the 1970s, they were ready.
THE WEEKLONG celebration started in 1964 as a way to bring visitors to the city known mostly for its constant rain. There would be a parade, pageantry and hula for entertainment. People would discover the charm of Hilo, the hula and the king who revived it, David Kalakaua.
A few years later when the festival began to falter, the late civic activist Aunty Dottie Thompson and the late kumu hula Uncle George Na’ope took over, and in 1971 the hula competition was launched.
In 1976 men’s hula would be introduced.
Perhaps without meaning to, the Merrie Monarch organization created what has been called the “Hula Olympics.” To win at Merrie Monarch is to win the gold medal. But do men get a little more leeway than women, especially in their auana (modern) numbers?
Ching says no.
“Both must adhere to the guidelines of the Merrie Monarch Festival and the Hawaiian culture,” he said. “With that said, I think just the choices that the kumu hula make” are choices that fit within the rules, are in keeping with their halau style but are also calculated to get the crowd involved.
Festival President Kawelu, who inherited the job from her mother, said she can’t explain the increased level of excitement.
“The kane halau dances just seem to have more oomph,” she said. “There seems to be more excitement in the audience when the men perform.”
Although the rules are the same for both genders, Takamine says the men do get a little more leeway. So long as they keep the moves, particularly the feet, within the hula range, “they can be a little more playful,” she said. “They’re riding their cows. They’re throwing their footballs. You’re still performing the movements of the hula, but you get a lot of breadth of movement.”
Manu Boyd, kumu hula of Halau o ke ‘A‘ali‘i Ku Makani and a television commentator for Merrie Monarch, says kumu, students and audiences are more knowledgeable now.
“We’re in a different place today,” he said. “I’d rather see a hula that wasn’t precise, that wasn’t so drill team, but you can look in the dancers’ eyes and you can feel the energy. The dancer is doing what he or she does to emote the spirit, the character. They are creating the chanter’s words. And the audience can tell. And that’s what makes them respond.”
Will we see more men in hula in the future? Baker thinks not just yet.
“There are lots of kumu but most teach only women. We have to grow the kumu part before the number of men can increase,” he said.
Merrie Monarch audiences, no doubt, will be ready and waiting.
Wanda A. Adams is a freelance writer who covered the Merrie Monarch Festival for many years and studied hula at Magic Hula Studio.
Traditionally, pa’u and malo were made from kapa (bark cloth). Pellon is the material often used in men’s pa’u today, while malo (loincloth) are usually made of cotton. There are many variations for draping and binding the pa’u.
Men’s auana attire varies depending on the mele, but usually includes an aloha shirt or long-sleeved shirt over slacks (or shorts), sometimes with a ti leaf skirt layered over the slacks. Can be formal or casual.
The gourd rattle is typically filled with alii poe (canna) seeds that create a distinctive sound when used by the dancer. ‘Uli‘uli are often, but not always, crafted with a feathered top of varying colors.
Split bamboo sticks measuring about two feet long make a rustling sound when struck against the body or each other. Can be used one at a time or in pairs while in seated or standing positions, depending on the tradition.
Water-worn pebbles, traditionally gathered where a river meets the sea. Two are held in each hand and clicked together. Hawaii’s porous volcanic rock makes for ideal ‘ili‘ili.
A traditional drum with a powerful sounds used for hula kahiko. Carved from the hollowed-out trunk of a coconut tree and covered in shark skin, each reflects a unique design from the heart and hands of its crafter.
A single hollowed gourd cut off at the neck that provides rhythm and sound with the movement. Typically used by a dancer in a hula, rather than by a kumu to accompany a dance.