Hula dancing has been part of Hawaiian culture since ancient times. However, even Hawaiians themselves are not exactly sure about its true origin. There are many regions, especially in the Hawaiian Islands, that claim to have been the birthplace of hula. One thing is abundantly clear; all Hawaiians believe the hula was a gift from the gods to humans.
While its specific origin may still be foggy in nature, it has been recorded that James Cook, the first European to visit Hawaii, saw women dancing hula in 1778 in Kauai. At this time there was still some speculation that only men were allowed to dance the hula. Cook noted that women were dancing the hula as well, and it would stand to reason that a culture like Hawaii would not allow women to do the dance if they did not believe female goddesses gave them the dance in the first place.
Regardless, the hula dance has been around for thousands of years in varying forms. This is not to say that it has always been easy for this traditional dance to stand the test of time. It almost disappeared in the 1800s when missionaries came to the islands of Hawaii. These missionaries believed this dance was immoral and went against godliness. They tried their best to convince dancers of their wrongdoing. The reigning monarch of the time, King Kalakaua, did not want the traditional dance to disappear. He felt that because the missionaries did not understand the spiritual meaning behind the hula, they could not make an informed decision. He refused an act banning hula dancing altogether.
During the 1800s, differing styles of hula evolved. In 1865, styles of hula began blending not only native Hawaiian styles together, but also those of foreign countries. These foreign variations were based on influences acquired from foreign visitors. In fact, it was King Kalakaua, who was a traveled man, that opened immigration to the Japanese and allowed their cultural elements into Hawaii. Japanese immigration started officially in 1885, and became influential in the changes in modern hula dancing. Both the hula and Hawaiian music adopted many Japanese elements.
By the 20th century, Hollywood had infiltrated the Hawaiian Islands and the influence was not lost on the hula. Hollywood filmmakers began discovering songs about Hawaii which were composed in part, or in whole, by other foreign languages, especially English. Hula songs that are popular today stem from the Hollywood golden era.
In the 1960s, a group of business people from Hilo wanted to attract more tourists. It was especially important following Hawaii’s entrance into the United States. They wanted to preserve the character of Hawaii by showing off Hula specifically. To do this, they started a hula competition. In order to distinguish this show from ordinary tour shows in Hawaii, and to encourage the performance of authentic hula, they created two categories.
One was the ancient category of hula kahiko, and the other the modern category of hula auana. The festival carries on today in honor of King Kalakaua and is still is a major event which propagates hula further into the future.