Hula is a dance form accompanied by chant (oli) or song (mele). It was developed in the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians who originally settled there. The hula dramatizes or portrays the words of the oli or mele in a visual dance form.
There are many sub-styles of hula, with the main two categories being Hula ‘Auana and Hula Kahiko. Ancient hula, as performed before Western encounters with Hawaiʻi, is called kahiko. It is accompanied by chant and traditional instruments. Hula, as it evolved under Western influence in the 19th and 20th centuries, is called ʻauana (a word that means “to wander” or “drift”). It is accompanied by song and Western-influenced musical instruments such as the guitar, the ʻukulele, and the double bass.
Terminology for two main additional categories is beginning to enter the hula lexicon: “Monarchy” includes any hula which were composed and choreographed during the 19th century. During that time the influx of Western culture created significant changes in the formal Hawaiian arts, including hula. “Ai Kahiko”, meaning “in the ancient style” are those hula written in the 20th and 21st centuries that follow the stylistic protocols of the ancient hula kahiko.
There are also two main positions of a hula dance – either sitting (noho dance) or standing (luna dance). Some dances utilize both forms.
Hula is taught in schools or groups called hālau. The teacher of hula is the kumu hula, where kumu means source of knowledge, or literally just teacher. Often there is a hierarchy in hula schools – starting with the kumu (teacher), alaka’i (leader), kokua (helpers), and then the ‘olapa (dancers) or haumana (students). This is not true for every hālau, but it does occur often. Most, if not all, hula halau(s) have a permission chant in order to enter wherever they may practice. They will collectively chant their entrance chant, then wait for the kumu to respond with the entrance chant, once he or she is finished, the students may enter. One well known and often used entrance or permission chant is Kunihi Ka Mauna/Tunihi Ta Mauna.
Hula dancing is a complex art form, and there are many hand motions used to represent the words in a song or chant. For example, hand movements can signify aspects of nature, such as the swaying of a tree in the breeze or a wave in the ocean, or a feeling or emotion, such as fondness or yearning. Foot and hip movements often pull from a basic library of steps including the kaholo, ka’o, kawelu, hela, ‘uwehe, and ‘ami.
There are other related dances (tamure, hura, ‘aparima, ‘ote’a, haka, kapa haka, poi, Fa’ataupati, Tau’olunga, and Lakalaka) that come from other Polynesian islands such as Tahiti, The Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Aotearoa (New Zealand); however, the hula is unique to the Hawaiian Islands.