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August 5, 2019 | by  | in Features |
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Hula Le’a Wale


‘Everything ancient was once new

and though our structures were denied age

no amount of dismantling, disassembling,

desecrating or disrespecting of our right to be

can deny us our ancientness,

our ability to stand with thousands and thousands.’ – Emalani Case


Like myself, Dr Emalani Case started learning hula from a very young age. She was chosen at birth by her cousin who was a Kumu (teacher) of hula, and she would sit and watch videos sent to her of her Kumu dancing. When she started school at age six, she started training in hula at the same time. At age 26, she completed Uniki in Hula Kahiko (traditional hula). Kahiko allowed her to learn about hula in a traditional sense without the colonial restrictions and expectations that come with Hula ‘auana (modern hula.). She compared the experience of completing Uniki to that of obtaining a PhD, but harder. It involved intense training and a final ceremony of dancing at several traditional places around the island of Oahu.


I met Emalani in a meeting room in the Va’aomanū Pasifika, where she is currently employed as a lecturer, and with the little information I gave her, Emalani exceeded all of my expectations. I was encapsulated, I felt like I was listening to a story. It was exactly the kind of space I wanted to be in. A space where we could exchange our stories of ancestors, traditions, beliefs—that, for once, we weren’t having to argue about or fight for. A space where we could marvel over the similarity of our histories, trauma, and experiences, but most importantly—a space where we would never have had to debate the existence of these things to begin with. 


“With colonisation came the attempted banning of hula. Kahiko is harder, deeper, not as graceful as hula you see now. It is one of the things that Christianity targeted because it was too sexual. We often say hula went underground. Our people found ways to keep it going.”


Colonisation in the Pacific involved Pākehā stealing land, abolishing traditions, and destroying language. Part of colonial regiments involved forced hygiene, modesty, and restrictions in decoration and ornamentation. This even extended to restrictions on bodily movements.


“One thing that I notice about the old sketches is that women have short hair. I had long hair most of my life but because of that, I had this moment where I was like I am just going to chop it. The long hair thing I don’t know where that started. It is all part of the image now.”


Definitions of femininity in its current state in the Pacific have been largely affected by religion as a result of colonisation. This has caused people’s traditional perceptions and ideas of femininity to change by incorporating introduced ideas of femininity that put one’s morality, purity, domesticity, and cleanliness into question. Colonised ideas of femininity have changed hula into a clean, marketable image of grace, poise, and gentleness. In the Western world, these traits are often used in relation to what it means to be feminine, or a “woman”.


“I marvel at the intelligence of my ancestors, the way that they pay attention to every shift, maintain customs and values through dance. Having that awareness of your ancestors as people who had intelligence and agency it is so important to challenge outdated and inaccurate assumptions that have been projected on us.”


“There have been many people who have found themselves in hula. It is embodied. We have been so heavily colonised that we carry the weight, the weight of kuleana. Hula is one of the ways of dealing with this. It is a way of reconnecting. And that in itself is healing.”


Healing for myself as an indigenous person means reclaiming the traditions of our ancestors, place, language, all of the things that were taken from us and abolished through colonial expansion. Healing is using this knowledge to empower and encourage generations to come, and using ancestral knowledge to create spaces and tools for others to heal in the future.


“The fact that people are digging further back into the past to go even further into the future… I hope people continue to write hula for what is going on now. We are going to be the ancestors one day that people are dancing about.”


I learnt so much from Emalani and the knowledge I received was accentuated even more—not because of her position as a doctor, but because of her position and the experiences she has had as a Kumu. The revitalisation of Hula Kahiko reclaims ancient traditions of gender fluidity, sexuality, and telling stories. 


Hula is so much more than just movement. Hula, land, storytelling, language, identity, trauma—they are all interrelated and should not try to be understood individually. Similarly, representative groups and movements going forward must look back to our traditions, examine what was targeted and abolished during the introduction of religion to our islands, and make sure we are not being harmfully selective about which parts of our culture we are choosing to reclaim and revive. 


Again I will close with Emalani’s words—a reminder of the importance and history behind our traditions. 


‘Everything ancient was once new:

a new altar built stone by stone,

each one chosen, collected,

each one passed hand by hand,

stacked together to bear the weight of prayers

thousands and thousands of prayers.’ – Emalani Case


Reference list

Kamahele, Momi (1992) Hula as Resistance. Forward Motion 2 (3): 40-45.

Ethnology of Tongareva. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 92, 1932. 

Bryers-Brown, Tarapuhi. (2015). “He reached across the river and healed the generations of hara”: Structural violence, historical trauma, and healing among contemporary Whanganui Māori. Masters Thesis. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington.

ALEXEYEFF, KALISSA. Dancing from the Heart: Movement, Gender, and Sociality in the Cook Islands. HONOLULU: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009.


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