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What Hula Teaches About Connecting to the Environment in Maui

Sponsored by Maui Visitors Bureau

11.11.19

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Here's what to know about this art form—and where to see and do hula yourself.

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The dancers make it look easy: Tranquil as the tropical sunset behind them, they sway as their arms evoke trees, ocean waves, and rainbows. Each movement, full of grace and precision, is executed with effortless cool—the type that takes years of dedication and training to pull off.

The motions are a true symbol of the island itself and reflect the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people. In fact, this art form has roots deep as Haleakalā, the massive shield volcano rising 10,023 feet above the turquoise Pacific.

“Hula carries forward the ancient stories, traditions, and dances of our ancestors,” explains Kauʻi Kanakaʻole, a kumu hula (master instructor). “It is the strong tie that binds us to the past, present and future. Hula is foundational to our identity and dignity as a people.”

The Meaning of Hula
The art’s origins are lost to time. Hula may have begun as religious worship, or it may have been the dramatization of chants passed down through ancient Hawaiian lore. Gradually, it evolved into a form of entertainment, until 19th-century missionaries attempted to stomp it out, along with other aspects of Native Hawaiian culture. As the Andaz Maui’s cultural specialist, Kalikolehua Storer, explains: “When our language was abolished, Hawaiian went underground. But people could still sing and dance at luau. It kept us connected.”

That unity goes beyond just communities, though. Everything about hula—the fresh garlands, the chants’ vibrations, the instruments’ rhythms and the fluid movements—echoes the environment. The performers connect to Laka, the Goddess of the Wild Woods, and the energy that keeps Maui’s ecosystem thriving.

Kanakaʻole says, “If the forest is healthy and the forest is alive, we are healthy, and we are alive. When we do the hula with the lei on, it’s consecrating those leaves and those ferns and those flowers you put on your body.

“The performance is part of the cycle of life. We emulate that through the stories we tell.”

How to See and Do Hula in Maui
Many ways exist to experience this ancient art on Maui, thanks to King David Kalākaua, who revived the classical dance form during his 1874–1891 reign.

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The Hawaiian values of ho‘okipa (hospitality) and po'okela (excellence) reign at the Old Lāhaina Lūʻau, which regularly wins “best luau” from Hawaiʻi Magazine and other regional awards. Developed in 1986, it brought more cultural sensitivity to the scene, which had been stuck in a tiki bar, Don Ho-type rut ($120, nightly).

The Andaz’s Feast at Mokapu tells the story of its location at Wailea, not a larger tale about all Hawaii, like most resort luau. It also elevates the cuisine far beyond the usual buffet offerings. Maui-born Executive Chef Isaac Bancaco has designed a luxurious 15-dish meal, which ranges from cured beef poke to kalua pig roasted in an imu (earth oven) and grilled breadfruit salad with sea asparagus, as well as sweet potato cheesecake. The fee includes cocktails handcrafted with fresh juices and simple syrups, as well as a professional portrait taken against the sunset. (Sundays and Tuesdays; prices start at $200 for standard seating and $250 for premium seating.)

On a budget? Turn to the Lahaina Cannery Mall for free hula shows and lessons at the island’s only fully enclosed, air-conditioned shopping center.

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While Maui has many hālau (hula schools), independent travelers often gravitate towards casual, one-off lessons via resorts or the Hawaiʻi Hula Company. It sends professional dancers to conduct private classes, typically outside on a patio, lawn, or beach. After adorning participants with lei and flower rosettes, they touch on the history of hula and share the basic steps and hand motions. Take things up a notch with a garland-making workshop or add Samoan fire knife dancers and Polynesian drummers.

Whether you wiggle your hips or just watch the artistry of professional dancers, make sure to approach hula with an open heart. As Kanakaʻole says, “It all comes back to that reciprocal relationship that we have living here. We don’t just take from the environment—you also give back. And there are so many ways to give back. As a visitor, it can be just your words of mahalo (thanks).”

Learn more about Maui’s conservation and eco-consciousness at gohawaii.com/islands/maui.

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