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Hip, Hip, Hula

On the third Sunday of every month — which was yesterday — part of the waterfront main drag of downtown Kailua-Kona is closed off to auto traffic in favor of the “Kona Sunday Street Stroll”, which is pretty much exactly what you are picturing. About 100 local vendors set up tents, and it’s worth an easy hour or so to stroll among them. Some of these are for food, including that Hawaiian perennial, shave ice, and — our personal favorite — a local lady who makes popsicles out of fresh-pressed local fruits. Trust me, you want a lilikoi (passion fruit)-banana popsicle. I also tried a rather bizarre mixture: a pineapple-papaya-chili pepper popsicle. The chili peppers were in little chunks, scattered dangerously throughout. I came to think of it as a Menopause Popsicle: you’re happily working your way through the sweet refreshing fruity ice, when POW! Hot flash!

The non-food vendors: jewelry, tee shirts, photographers (you have no idea how many metal-printed photos of lava and sea turtles are out there), and herbal panaceas. The latter are usually advertised as having been extracted from some species of flora that no one has ever heard of, but which can nonetheless provide relief from pretty much everything.

Certainly the highlight of our walk — besides the popsicles and shave ice — was the hula demo on the grounds of the Hulihe’e Palace, the former Kona waterfront vacation home of Hawaiian royalty, built in the early 1800’s. Here was the scene yesterday at about 4:30 PM:

Hulihee Hula 02172019-060-Edit

Hula — especially Hawaiian hula – is a complicated and subtle art form. Many mainland hula demonstrations include an admixture of Tahitian hula, which is the one with the very rapid tempo drumming. the tall headdresses, and the women with the inhumanly fast hips. Traditional Hawaiian hula is different: the pre-Western kind, called hula kahiko, is a story-telling medium centered on the arms, hands, and face. It’s performed to a song and accompanied only by a percussive double gourd. Here’s what I mean by it being gestural:

I like to think that the pose on the left means, “Please silence your cell phones.” Other examples from yesterday:

Hulihee Hula 02172019-043

Hulihee Hula 02172019-006

At this point, someone out there who is reading this post is thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s with the 19th century prom dresses? Where are the grass skirts?” Here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, the original Hawaiian female hula dancers never wore grass skirts. They wore very elaborate, multi-square-yard skirts made of kapa cloth, which is a fiber made from a certain pressed tree bark. And they did not wear coconut-shell bras. (No sane woman anywhere ever has; they’re some late 19th century guy’s fantasy, which I’ll get to in a moment.) They did not wear any tops at all.

The whole topless women thing did not sit well with late 18th century missionaries, or at least with their wives. It became necessary to cover the immodest heathen, and so they did. To keep the missionaries placated the hula halaus (schools) adopted the grandmotherly garb that you see above, and much of both modern day (‘auana) and traditional (kahiko) hula are performed that way. Men’s hula, on the other hand — much more stylistically aggressive and less subtle than the women’s dance — was and still is performed in loincloths and maile leaf adornments.

So where did the whole grass-skirt-and-coconut-bra shtick come from? The answer, believe it or not, is vaudeville. Vaudeville got its start in the 1880’s about a century after Cook’s arrival and eventual death in the islands. Knowledge of Hawaii’s existence had seeped into popular knowledge by then, and theater producers were always on the lookout for exotic material for their productions. “Girls from a tropical island” was bound to occur to somebody sooner or later. But the topless thing clearly wasn’t gonna fly, and the authentic kapa skirts weren’t going to work either: they were expensive, labor-intensive to maintain, and, well, insufficiently sexy for their intended purpose. Enter the grass skirt: cheap, easy to fix or replace, and just a bit suggestive. Ditto the coconut bras. The skirts also had a certain historical precedent in that they did somewhat resemble Tahitian hula skirts, which are indeed made from grasses and leaves but are ankle-length and thick.

This dress scheme was wildly successful, and soon every vaudeville act with a Hawaiian number was dressing their dancers in grass skirts, to the point that it eventually became everyone’s default mental image for Hawaiian hula. It was, in its way, one of the first viral memes. And of course, it filtered all the way back to its point of origin: if you plunk for the $49.95 Colorful Hawaiian Luau at whatever hotel you’re staying at, odds are good that you’ll see a hula dancer in a not-particularly-Hawaiian grass skirt.

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