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Letter from Hawaii: The Real Hula

Photo by Karen Glenn.

By Tom Passavant

Glimpses of authentic Hawaiian culture have a way of popping up in the most unlikely places here in the islands, none more so than smack in the heart of Tourist Central, aka Waikiki. For example, just a stone’s throw from a vast Cheesecake Factory on bustling Kalakaua Avenue is the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound, a grassy half-circle right on the sand. There, four evenings a week at sunset, you can enjoy a free hour-long performance of Hawaiian music and dance that’s as authentic as anything you’ll see at a backyard baby luau or even the prestigious Merrie Monarch Festival, the Super Bowl of hula held every April on the Big Island.

The lineup of performers at the Kuhio Beach Hula Show rotates throughout the year, but the format on usually consistent: the show begins with the dances called hula kahiko, or ancient hula, accompanied only by chanting and gourds for percussion. Then comes hula auana, or modern hula, in which instruments like guitars and ukuleles are deployed, and many familiar songs are sung. Most nights (and especially on weekends), the performers are members of the island’s top hula halau, or hula schools, which require years of rigorous practice and considerable personal sacrifice to attend. In other words, while it’s a colorful and highly entertaining show, this is the real Hawaiian thing. So don’t expect to see any wild hip-shaking (that’s from Polynesia) or fire dancers (that would be Samoa). And as one of the organizers put it to me, “No coconut shell bras. Ever!”

Photo by Karen Glenn.

One thing we’ve enjoyed over the years is the sense of fun and spontaneity that permeates the performances. One night last year the performers invited a friend from Maui up out of the audience to join the troupe, and even in her street clothes she was a dazzling dancer. Kids as young as three or four, both boys and girls, often perform. And it was at a Kuhio Beach show that we first saw a troupe of men dancing ancient hula, a powerful and deeply moving experience that eventually led my wife and me to attend the three-day Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.

The Kuhio Beach Hula Show takes place every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday (holidays and weather permitting) near the Duke Kahanamoku statue at 6:30 p.m., and at 6 p.m. during November, December, and January. Hula schools appear on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and other performers on Tuesdays. Everyone is welcome to bring chairs or a mat to sit on, and photography is most definitely encouraged, although shooting at night into the lights is not the easiest of photo assignments. The free show is sponsored by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the City and County of Honolulu, and the Waikiki Improvement Association. Performance schedules are available at honolulu.gov/moca. For more information, call 808-843-8002.

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