“Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” (attributed to Kalākaua)
“Their dances … are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts, in a manner, and with attitudes, that are perfectly easy and graceful … .” (Captain Cook Journal, 1779)
“Hula is not just a dance, but a way of life, an ancient art that tells of Hawaiʻi’s rich history and spirituality.” (attributed to many)
Did the Missionaries really stop Hula in Hawaiʻi, as we are most often led to believe?
In taking a closer look into the matter, most would likely come to a different conclusion.
First of all, the missionaries were guests in the Hawaiian Kingdom; they didn’t have the power to ban or abolish anything – that was the right of the King and Chiefs.
Most will agree the missionaries despised the fact that hula dancers were typically topless; they also didn’t like the commingling between the sexes.
So, before we go on, we need to agree, the issue at hand is hula – not nudity and interactions between the sexes. In keeping this discussion on the actual activity and not sexuality, let’s see what the missionaries had to say about hula.
As hula is the dance that accompanies Hawaiian mele, the function of hula is therefore an extension of the function of mele in Hawaiian society. While it was the mele that was the essential part of the story, hula served to animate the words, giving physical life to the moʻolelo (stories.) (Bishop Museum)
Hula combines dance and chant or song to tell stories, recount past events and provide entertainment for its audience. With a clear link between dancer’s actions and the chant or song, the dancer uses rhythmic lower body movements, mimetic or depictive hand gestures and facial expression, as part of this performance. (ksbe-edu)
So what did the missionaries really think?
As Hiram Bingham once noted, they “were wasting their time in learning, practising, or witnessing the hula, or heathen song and dance.” (Remember, heathen simply means ‘without religion, as in without God.’)
Others were more supportive.
“The hula was a religious service, in which poetry, music, pantomime, and the dance lent themselves, under the forms of dramatic art, to the refreshment of men’s minds. Its view of life was idyllic, and it gave itself to the celebration of those mythical times when gods and goddesses moved on the earth as men and women and when men and women were as gods.” (Emerson, son of missionaries)
“(W)hen it comes to the hula and the whole train of feelings and sentiments that made their entrances and exits in the halau (the hall of the hula) one perceives that in this he has found the door to the heart of the people.” (Emerson, son of Missionaries)
In describing a hula danced before Keōpūolani and her daughter Nāhiʻenaʻena, in Lāhainā in 1823, Missionary CS Stewart wrote:
“The motions of the dance were slow and graceful, and, in this instance, free from indelicacy of action; and the song, or rather recitative, accompanied by much gesticulation, was dignified and harmonious in its numbers. The theme of the whole, was the character and praises of the queen and princess, who were compared to everything sublime in nature, exalted as gods.” (Missionary Stewart)
And how did Hiram Bingham feel (again, the one most often accused of a Hula ban?)
“This was intended, in part at least, as an honor and gratification to the king, especially at Honolulu, at his expected reception there, on his removal from Kailua. Apparently, not all hula was viewed as bad or indecent.” (Missionary Hiram Bingham)
“In the hula, the dancers are often fantastically decorated with figured or colored kapa, green leaves, fresh flowers, braided hair, and sometimes with a gaiter on the ancle, set with hundreds of dog’s teeth, so as to be considerably heavy, and to rattle against each other in the motion of the feet.” (Hiram Bingham)
“They had been interwoven too with their superstitions, and made subservient to the honor of their gods, and their rulers, either living or departed and deified.” (Hiram Bingham)
The missionaries most often opposed nudity, drinking and ‘wasting’ time. Even today, laws forbid nudity in public; frown on excessive drinking and, likewise, we tend to encourage people to be productive members of their community (kind of like the concerns expressed by the early missionaries.)