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Updated: Mar 11

Stories of

Life in Old Hawaiʻi

Caroline Curtis

Kamehameha Schools Press

Honolulu 1998

pgs. 101-115

The Hula School

Laka, Goddess of the Hula


Keao and ʻIlima were watching children playing in the sand. Suddenly ʻIlima spoke. "I was playing in the sand that way when I heard the call of the drums. It was long ago and I was very small, but the call of the drums drew me as a fisherman draws in fish. I ran. People were crowded together watching something. I slipped through the crowd to see. You know how a child can slip in where there seems to be no room.

    "It was a hula. Men and women were dancing to the beat of drums. There was my grandmother—my own dear grandmother. Perhaps I had seen the hula before. I do not know. But this one I remember: the dancers with moving arms and swirling pāʻū, the shine of sunlight on their many lei and bracelets, the tinkle of anklets and Grandmother softly tapping the drum with her fingertips.

    "That night I crawled into her lap. 'Teach me, Grandmother,' I said. 'I want to be a dancer.'

    "She did teach me in the years that followed. There is much a child can learn. She said, 'I am too old and heavy to dance and gesture,' but she was not. To me she was beautiful.

    "'What are you seeing, Grandmother?' I asked one day. She was looking beyond me and I turned to look. I saw only ʻulu trees touched by the wind. 'What are you seeing?' I asked again.

    "'Laka, my goddess.'

    "'Where?' My eyes searched the ʻulu grove.

    "'In my mind, Grandchild. I see her as I once saw her in the forest.' Then Grandmother told me about Laka, goddess of the hula. 'she is also the goddess of the wild plants that grow in the forest.'    "'she is my goddess,' I said. Everyday I prayed to her. Whenever women went to the forest I went with them. I looked for Laka everywhere.

    "'someday you will see her,' Grandmother told me.

    "One day I was in the lower forest helping women who were gathering berries to make dye. Rain came and the women ran into a cave but I stayed to watch the rain. It was only a light misty rain. Sunshine sparkled on it and made a rainbow. Then I saw her!" ʻIlima's voice was almost a whisper and Keao leaned close to listen. "Her pāʻū was swirling mist. Her anklets were shiny raindrops. She was dancing a hula I did not know. Oh, Keao, I cannot tell you how lovely she was, how graceful!

    "Then the misty rain was gone and the women called me to gather berries. Laka was gone too—but the memory of her is still clear in my mind.

    "That night I told Grandmother. 'she has chosen you, ʻIlima,' Grandmother said earnestly. 'You are to be a hula dancer.' After that I worked harder than ever to learn the chants and gestures.

    "'When can I train with a hula group?' I asked.

    "'We shall ask Wahi.'

    "But Wahi, the hula master, said I was too young. 'The training of the hālau is very hard. You know that,' he said to Grandmother. 'Wait until your grandchild is older and stronger.'

    "We have waited. It is three years since Wahi taught the hula in this district. Grandmother has heard that he will come this year. If only he will take me!" Keao saw the longing in her friend's eyes. She heard the longing in her voice. She did not answer but in her heart she prayed.   A few days passed. Then ʻIlima found Keao making ready to beat kapa. Keao jumped up when she saw her friend for ʻIlima's eyes were shining. "Wahi has chosen you!" she cried. "I knew he would. I prayed."

    "Can you come, Keao? I have something for you to see."

    Keao looked at the bark and kapa beater. She did not like to leave her work. But Ana, her mother, said, "Go, Keao. This is a great day for ʻIlima. When she enters the hālau you two cannot be together. Go with her today."

    ʻIlima took her friend's hand and urged her along the beach to the place where an old woman sitting under a hau tree was braiding sennit. Her hair was white and her face wrinkled but shining with happiness. "ʻIlima has told you," she said.

    "I didn't have to tell," ʻIlima answered. "She knew by just looking at me. May I show her—you know what— Grandmother?"

    The old woman took a kapa-wrapped bundle from the top of her pāʻū. The girls were on their knees beside her as ʻIlima unwrapped the bundle. "Shells!" Keao exclaimed. "Such beautiful red-striped shells and all the same size! I have never seen shells like those, ʻIlima."

    "They are anklets. See. They are strung on niu fiber. Tell Keao about them, Grandmother."

    "You know that I was a hula dancer, Keao," the old woman began. "Once the troupe I was in danced before a visiting chiefess. I danced one hula alone to the rhythm of sharkskin drums. When I finished, the chiefess said, 'That is a hula dear to my heart, for it is like sunshine on rippling water. Here is something for you to wear next time you dance it,' and she gave me these rare shells.

    "They were my dearest treasure and I wore them many times. When I was too old and heavy to dance and gesture I learned to play the instruments. Now I am very old.                                                               


    "Yesterday Wahi said, 'The grandchild should have bracelets or anklets that have been used before. Have you something you have worn, something that will give her the blessing of our goddess?'

    "So I brought out these shells. They are ʻIlima's now for she is my dearest treasure."

    The two young women looked thoughtfully at the anklets and Keao said, "The sunlight shines on them as it shines on a lei of feathers. The color glows."

    Grandmother put the shells away. "Until tomorrow," ʻIlima whispered. The she added, "Tell us about the hālau, Grandmother. Tell us what Kanoe is doing."

    "An altar will be built in the hālau," the grandmother explained, "an altar to Laka. Kanoe was the one chosen to get branches for the altar as well as vines and flowers to trim it. He went into the forest at dawn and as he went he prayed. His work is sacred. It must be done in silence and with prayer.

    "Tell Keao what he must gather, Grandchild."

    "He is getting koa branches." ʻIlima was speaking now. Her eyes seemed to be looking into the dark koa forest as she went on. "ʻKoa' means 'unafraid.' The koa branches are a prayer that we shall never be afraid even when we dance before a crowd."

    "What else must he gather?" the grandmother asked.

    "Lehua in the lower forest, halapepe, ʻieʻie, sweet smelling maile and palai fern," ʻIlima answered. "He must repeat a special prayer for each. And pili grass," she added quickly. "That is very important for 'pili' means to 'cling.' The pili grass is a prayer that chants and gestures may cling to us through all our lives.

    "You tell what happens next, Grandmother."

    "When Kanoe comes back to the hālau Wahi will sprinkle the vines and branches with purifying water. He and Kanoe will build an altar to Laka, an altar made of the sacred branches and trimmed with vines and flowers. They will pray Laka to send her spirit into that altar. If you and the others try earnestly Laka will be pleased. Her spirit will stay in the altar and vines and branches will be green and full of life."

    There was a long silence. Keao was thinking, tomorrow ʻIlima will be there. She will see. O Laka, she prayed silently, bless my friend. Help her to be a good hula dancer.

    Then ʻIlima spoke, "And tonight, Grandmother? Tell Keao about that."

    "Tonight Wahi will stay alone in the hālau. He will pray Laka will bless his teaching. He will pray that he may remember every chant and gesture, that he may teach with patience and with wisdom. He will pray for all his pupils—that you may work earnestly and remember, that your voices may be rich and true, your bodies graceful, your hearts reverent and unafraid.

    "Wahi will also pray for new wisdom. He will ask the goddess to come to him in a dream and teach him a hula he did not know or call to mind one he had forgotten."

    Again the three were silent, thinking. Perhaps all three were praying. There was no movement but the sunlight dancing through hau leaves.

    At last the old woman picked up the niu fibers which had fallen in her lap. Keao watched her quick fingers as she braided. Though she was old her hands were not stiff, but beautiful in movement. Her voice too is strong and sweet, the young woman thought. It is because of her hula training.

    Aloud she said, "I think our district has the best dancers on this island."

    "That is something we must never think," the old woman told her. "Chants and gestures taught in one hula school are always different from those of another school, though sometimes different only in little ways. But each is good. I still remember the words of my master, 'Never find fault with the teaching of another school. All knowledge does not come from one source.'"

    "That is what my mother said about kapa-making," Keao offered. "Patterns and dyes may be different, but all work done with prayer and skill is good."

    Then she asked, "Do you know any stories about the hula?"

    "I was taught the art was brought from far Kahiki by our ancestors," the old woman told her. "Girls of Hawaiʻi instructed Hiʻiaka in the dances and she and other sisters of Pele danced in the fire pit. Then Laʻa came. Do you know that story, Keao?"

    "I have heard it—but tell it once more so we shall be sure to remember it."

    "Laʻa was a son of Moʻikeha, the voyager," Grandmother began, "He came from far Kahiki. As his canoe sailed along the coast of Hawaiʻi by night Laʻa softly beat his drum.

    "The sound was new and beautiful.

    "'What is it?' people asked. Others answered, 'It is the great god, Kū.' At daybreak they paddled out with offerings of food for the god.

    "Sometimes Laʻa stopped at a landing place. Then hula teachers gathered, for they had heard the voice of Laʻa's drum. He taught them hula. Though he beat the drum he kept it hidden. 'What is it?' they asked each other. 'Its tone is rich and beautiful. If only we could make drums like that!'

    "A hula master on Oʻahu followed the canoe. That drum's voice is most beautiful! he thought. I have nothing with such a deep tone. I must see the drum! So he ran, following the canoe. Sometimes he ran along the beach. Sometimes the trail was on the cliff above.

    "As the hula teacher ran he listened to the rhythms of the drum. They were new to him and he knew he must learn them. So he beat each one with his hands on his chest until it was fixed in his mind.

    "When at last the canoe landed the hula master was there to greet Laʻa. 'I heard your drum,' the hula master said. 'It sounds like one of mine. I wonder whether they are the same.'

    "Laʻa brought out his drum. The hula master saw it was larger than any he had known before. It was made from a section of an ʻulu log, hollowed and covered with sharkskin. The sharkskin was laced on with sennit. 'Yes,' said the hula master, 'as I thought, it is much like mine.'

    "Soon these words became true, for the hula master made a drum just like that of Laʻa. On it he played the rhythms he had practiced pounding on his chest to learn. Since those days the sharkskin drum has been used with the hula through all Hawaiʻi."


                                                            In the Hālau


    As ʻIlima came to the hālau, the house where the hula dancers were to be trained, she felt chilled with nervous anticipation. She joined others who had been chosen for training. Some were older men and women who had been dancers and would now be trained to play the rhythm instruments. Some were young men and women of ʻIlima's own age. All were people she knew—but today they seemed strangers.

    At the door of the hālau Wahi, the hula master, sprinkled them with purifying water. Once inside ʻIlima looked about. The hālau was larger than a sleeping house but smaller than she had expected.

    On the east side was the altar. ʻIlima knew it must be on the side of the rising sun. Placing the altar on the east was a prayer for health and life and for growth in dancing. In the center of the altar stood a block of lama wood draped with soft yellow kapa. On it vines and flowers were banked. It was beautiful—more than beautiful—for ʻIlima knew that Laka, her goddess, was in that altar. Laka would watch the work of the hālau. Her spirit would enter every earnest dancer.

    Pupils gathered around the food mat where a feast was ready. Wahi prayed. Then, as he divided the pig, he gave some of the brain to each pupil. ʻIlima had wondered what it would be like to eat pork. Usually that meat was forbidden to women. Now she did not even remember that it was food she had never tasted. She thought only that it was food shared with Laka. It was a prayer that Laka's power might be in her and in all the pupils.

    After the feast was finished work began. Again Wahi prayed. Then he chanted and the pupils repeated the chant. Learning the words was easy for ʻIlima but two or three others found it hard. "They are frightened," the young woman told herself. "How patient Wahi is, going over and over a chant until all have learned it!"

    Then the hula master chose one pupil to chant while he showed the gestures that must go with the words. ʻIlima had learned hula gestures from the time she was small. This was what she loved. But Wahi's movements were so perfect that she felt discouraged. How could she get every part of her body to move in harmony with a sacred chant? It seemed impossible. Over and over the chant rang out. Over and over the pupils tried to gesture as the master did. When at last Wahi gave the word to stop ʻIlima was exhausted.

    Morning came too soon. ʻIlima longed to stay on her mats but one dip in the pool near the hālau brought her wide awake. The pool was fed by a cool spring and gave new life to those who bathed there. Each dancer found fresh garments and a lei hanging on a bush or tree near the pool. These had been brought by some relative, for everyone must be clean and pure in the presence of Laka.   Dressing was a ceremony. ʻIlima soon learned the chants which went with each part of her clothing. All stooped together to put on anklets.

    "Bind on the anklets, bind," they chanted. ʻIlima thought of her grandmother who had worn these beautiful red-striped shells in many dances.

            "Gird on the pāʻū.

            Great the toil and care to make the pāʻū."

The pāʻū, or skirt, was indeed a beautiful piece of work. It was made of five strips of kapa wide enough to reach below the knees. It must be pleated at the waist so that it would swirl around the dancer.

    The kapa cape, or kīhei, passed under the right arm and was tied with a knot on the left shoulder. Last of all the lei. This morning hers was of the yellow ʻilima flowers, whose name she bore.

    Then work began. Each pupil must learn to control his breath, for tones must be strong and beautiful. There were many chants to be learned. Some honored the gods, others honored chiefs. Each had its own beauty of music and gesture. Always the tone of voice and instruments must be suited to the chant.

    The musicians sat or knelt. They used drums, rattles, pebbles, sticks—each with its own tone. Over and over each hula was repeated until beat, voice and gesture fitted perfectly.

    ʻIlima had never worked as she did now, from early morning far into the night. Yet she had never been so happy. Laka's spirit is in me, she thought. It is in us all. That is why gestures are easier to learn than at first. That is why we do not confuse the chants. That is why we forget we are tired or hungry.

    There was time for short rests and for food but not for games and idleness. The pupils could never forget that they were in the presence of their goddess. They could never be careless in speech or act.

    Food was brought to the door by relatives. These people did not enter the hālau, for it was sacred. Certain kinds of food were kapu to those who learned the hula and these were never brought. The name of one limu meant "to hide." It was kapu, for eating it might make the memory of chant or gesture hide from those who tried to learn.

    One morning as the pupils came from the bathing pool they noticed the master's face. It shines like the sun, ʻIlima thought.

    "Wahi has had a dream," someone whispered. And it was so. The master told them that he had tried for many months to remember a certain hula learned in childhood. "But it had flown," he said. "Last night, as I slept, I saw our goddess, Laka. She danced the hula I longed for. Every gesture, every word was clear."

    As ʻIlima learned that hula she seemed to see the goddess dancing. Laka is in me, the young woman thought again, and danced and chanted easily. That hula was indeed a sacred thing.




    One morning Wahi said, "Soon our district chief will send for this hula troupe to dance before his household. That is your graduation. Before we go I have asked Kaipo, a great hula master, to watch your work and tell us how it can be made better. Yesterday a message came from him. I think he will be with us today."

    Many had heard of Kaipo. It would be an honor to have him watch their work. There was excitement in the hālau and in ʻIlima's heart a little fear.   Just as the pupils were taking their places for a dance they heard a voice chanting the password. Wahi's face lighted with joy. The drums were hushed and everyone listened eagerly as Wahi chanted the reply, giving permission to enter.

    Kaipo was old and white haired, but straight and handsome. Wahi sprinkled him with purifying water. The old man went to the altar and lifted his voice in prayer. How strong and rich his tones!

                    "Thy blessing, O Laka,

                    On me, the stranger,

                    And on these within the hālau,

                    Teacher and pupils.

                    O Laka, bless the dancers

                    When they come before the people."

    Then Wahi took Kaipo in his arms. Their faces touched and their eyes filled with tears of joy. But they did not wail aloud, for they were in the presence of the goddess.

    Wahi seated the old master on a mat to watch. Kaipo did not interrupt a dance but after each told how it could be improved. "In this place your breathing was not right," he might say. "Fill your lungs and do not stop for breath until the phrase is finished." After another chant, "Your tone is not that of the bamboo rattles. Listen!" He struck a rattle. "Do you hear the light song of wind blowing through reeds in a marshy place? The music of your voices must be as light as the note of the bamboo."

    That night ʻIlima went to her mats tired with the effort of the day, yet happy. The old man's words had made the hula even more full of beauty and worship than before.

    Kaipo stayed for several days while pupils worked their hardest on dance and chant. At last he said, "It is well." That was all but, coming from the master, it was praise enough. ʻIlima knew—everyone knew—the troupe was  ready for graduation. A few days later came the chief's command to dance before his household. The time had come!

    Just after midnight, when no one was about, the pupils went to the ocean to bathe. Oh, how good to feel its waves once more! At the door of the hālau Wahi sprinkled each one with purifying water as he had done every time they entered. Then he himself went to bathe. When he returned they danced and chanted then slept a little while.

    At daybreak the pupils were wakened by their teacher's tapping on the sharkskin drum. ʻIlima was wide awake at once. This was the day!

    All bathed in the pool just as they had each morning. They chanted as they dressed, but the pāʻū each put on was new and beautiful. They gathered about the altar and chanted prayers to Laka.

    A long ceremony of prayers and chants followed the morning meal. The pupils watched as vines and branches were taken from the altar and replaced with fresh ones. They listened as Wahi talked to them. "Be true to what you have learned in this hālau," he said. "Then the chants will be yours through all your lives."

    And now, for the first time since entering the hālau, the pupils visited their homes. The men might shave. Everyone might trim hair and nails. They were all given many fresh lei made by their families. For a moment ʻIlima held her grandmother in her arms. Each knew that understanding and love had grown between them.

    The time at home was short. Soon all returned to the hālau to be sprinkled once more with purifying water and to chant reverently:

                "Laka sits in her shady grove.

                An offering we give to you.

                O Laka, let it be well,

                Well with us all,

                O giver of all things."

   As the chant ended the pupils crowded to the altar and heaped all their lei upon the block of lama wood where the spirit of Laka rested.

    The many prayers were answered. Quietly the hula troupe went to the chief's home. The audience was there, sitting or lying about the large mat made ready for the dancers. The program was long. Chants and instruments changed but always the voices carried the tone of instruments used—drums, gourd rattles, sticks, small stones. It seemed to ʻIlima that the spirit of Laka had driven fear from everyone. The praise which followed the program was not praise for the dancers and musicians. It was not praise for Wahi but for Laka, their goddess.

    That night when graduation was over Wahi took all the sacred things to Kanoe's canoe. He took the branches which had made the altar, the vines and every pāʻū and lei worn by a dancer, even bits of food from the feast shared with the goddess. Wahi and Kanoe paddled to deep ocean and reverently dropped everything into the starlit waves. Wahi prayed and the two watched the sacred things disappear. They were safe. No careless hands could touch them, no careless feet step on them.

    As she lay in the sleeping house ʻIlima heard the dip of a paddle. Perhaps it is Wahi and Kanoe returning, she told herself. Our training is finished. There was a bit of sadness in the thought. Then came another. Soon Makahiki will begin. Our hula troupe will dance in this district and in others. With a thankful prayer to Laka the young woman fell asleep.

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