When many people think about hula, pictures of luaus or dinner shows come to mind. But that commercialized version is far from the reality of the ancient performing art, which for centuries existed as Native Hawaiians’ foundation for documenting genealogy, mythology and history.
Even today, hula is just as much a part of Hawaiian culture as it was centuries ago. But to get a deeper understanding of the dance and storytelling art, forgo the resorts and instead head to hula competitions and celebrations across the Hawaiians islands — some of the most celebrated of which take place in Maui County.
Everyone knows about the Merrie Monarch Festival, known as the Olympics of hula, which takes place on the island of Hawai’i each spring. But you don’t have to go to the Big Island to see some of the best hula in the world. In fact, legend says that the art of hula was actually born on Moloka’i, where its creation is celebrated each year at Moloka'i Ka Hula Piko.
Started in 1991, Moloka'i Ka Hula Piko is one of the few hula events dedicated solely to its educational and community-driven focus; it’s not a competition. Instead, the event serves as a vehicle to educate the Moloka’i community and people who travel there about the history of the island and hula by celebrating Native Hawaiians’ rich oral traditions.
The festival focuses heavily on the legend that depicts the creation of hula. According to the tale, hula was born when the Hawaiian goddess Laka first performed the dance on Moloka’i, which then spread to the rest of the Hawaiian islands. Centuries later, the Moloka'i community and hula halau from across the state come together each year on the third weekend of May to celebrate Laka’s first dance. Admission is free, allowing the entire community to come watch the beauty of hula and shop for locally-made crafts.
But Moloka'i Ka Hula Piko isn’t the only festival worth checking out. Each year on Maui, the future of hula flocks to the island to compete in Hula O Na Keiki, the state’s premiere competition for dancers ranging in age from 5 to 17. This year will mark the contest’s 29th year, which has for years been held at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel in West Maui. There, you can watch children from across the islands dance their hearts out and perform traditional chants. This year's competition will start on Nov. 7.