Hula Loves Ya, Baby?

by Morgan Clarke '05

Many people dream of visiting Hawai’i. But Scripps juniors Shawna Behm, Kristen Hunt, Hannah Lachman, and Naomi Lord did more than dream. Inspired by a Scripps course,”Music of the Spirits,” taught by Professor Hao Huang, and by his ongoing research on the relationship between Hawai’ian identity and Hawai’ian music, they applied for and received a $5,000 Mellon grant to research hula dancing in Hawai’i.

The four women split up between two islands this past summer to find out how the Hawai’ian identity is connected to the practice of hula and whether tourist hula is exploitative of Hawai’ian culture and its performers. Behm and Hunt went to Oahu and interviewed both men and women involved in hula; Lachman and Lord traveled to the Big Island to learn about the history and construction of the ancient dance from women in Hilo and Kona.

Behm and Hunt found that hula functions as a cultural and political means of reclaiming Hawai’ian cultural identity. “The hula tradition simultaneously contains and communicates traditional Hawai’ian values of family, hospitality, respect (for elders, the land, culture, etc.), which Hawai’ians view differently from the Western values of their colonizers. There is more emphasis on ‘we’ than ‘I,'” explains Behm.

Initially, Behm and Hunt expected that the hula performed for tourists would be considered inferior and exploitative, but
they discovered quite the opposite.

“We found that hula is democratic. Different styles are respected equally. Performers of different ages, body types, ethnicities, and genders are all welcome to dance the hula. And tourist hula is respected because it is what has kept hula
alive over the years,” said Behm.

Lachman and Lord found similar feelings towards tourist hula on the Big Island: “It is a respectable job, to be a hula
dancer in Hawai’i, whether you are performing traditional hula in ceremonies or at the tourist resorts,” said Lord.

Lachman and Lord interviewed Nona Beamer, a woman from the famous Beamer family of traditional hula. From Beamer, the women discovered how integral hula is to the entirety of Hawai’ian culture. Dr. Huang remarked how exceptional this feat was, as many academic researchers unsuccessfully attempt to tap into the wealth of Beamer’s hula knowledge. Because they were enthusiastic about hula, the Scripps women were welcomed by natives of Hawai’i, who aided them in their research.

After completing their week in Hawai’i, Lachman found the culture of the islands to be humbling.”The warmth, acceptance, and generosity—it was something that we can’t repay,” she said.”We experienced the true aloha spirit.”