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The Hula Dancer as Actor: Characterization, Visualization, and Emotion

Coleen Lanki

A contemporary performance of hula combines dance and chant or song to tell stories, recount histories and provide entertainment for its audience. As part of this performance, the hula dancer uses rhythmic lower body movements, mimetic or depictive hand gestures and facial expression, with there being a clear link between the text being chanted or sung and the dancer’s actions (Cook 33). With these combined elements it seems that the hula dancer is more than just a body moving in space, but that he or she incorporates many tools in his or her performance. Is the hula dancer simply a dancer, a storyteller, or, in some sense, an “actor” in the performance?

For the purposes of this paper, I break down the work of an actor into three parts: characterization, visualization, and emotion. "Characterization" means the actor plays, embodies or enacts an actual human or non-human entity: a god, an animal, or a tree for example. The act of "visualization" entails that the actor imagines seeing something that is not really there. For an actor, visualization often includes not only sight, but taste, smell, sound and touch, so that a particular place, object, or even person can be re-created in the actor’s mind through memory and imagination in order to allow the audience to experience, on some level, the same image. "Emotion" has two locations: the emotions felt by the actor him or herself, and the emotions evoked in the audience by the actor’s performance. It is not necessary that an actor actually feel an emotion in order to create an emotional response in others, but there is very often a link between what the actor is actually feeling and what is transmitted to the audience.

In this paper I investigate how a hula dancer uses characterization, visualization and emotion in performance by asking the questions: Is the dancer portraying or embodying a character at any point in the dance? Is the dancer using visualization to recreate or experience what the dance is describing? Is the dancer experiencing any kind of emotion? What do I, as an audience member, feel while watching the dance? I look at five different performances of five different hula, all accessible to me as video recordings (with two being dances I also saw as live performances): "Kaulīlua" danced by kumu hula Māpuana de Silva, "Hole Waimea" danced by ‘Iolani Luahine, "The Kalaupapa Dog Hula" from the Moloka‘i tradition of kumu hula John Ka‘imikaua, "Poli‘ahu" danced by Annie Lokomaika‘i Lipscomb, and "Pi‘i Ana ‘A‘ama" choreographed by kumu hula Michael Pili Pang. Each of these performances is done by a solo female dancer, and none of them are danced as part of a competition. The dances are all quite different in nature and style, yet in each, the dancer either seems to become or embody a particular character, or there appears to be visualization used in the movement of the dance. In addition to viewing the dances themselves, if possible, I conducted interviews with the dancers or kumu hula involved with these selected hula. Also included in this paper are thoughts and opinions from other dancers and kumu gathered from lecture-demonstrations I attended at the University of Hawai‘i, or from videos and published works. I look in particular at the facial expressions and the eyes of the hula dancer she performs as well as at the expressive level of the hand gestures and lower body movements, which seem to be affected by the emotions evoked in a dance or by the character portrayed. I do not attempt to provide an historical overview of hula or of any expressive aspects of hula. The paper is not a comprehensive comparison of different schools or teachers of hula, or of their methods for performing or teaching facial or physical expression. I will look at individual dancers and teachers and try to isolate the expressive factors in their performances that place the hula dancer in the realm of the actor in their use of characterization, visualization, and emotion.

I am an outsider to the world of hula, so my analysis is informed by my work as a professional western-trained actor, director and acting instructor, as well as my years of training in nô and nihon buyô (Japanese classical theatre and dance). My work and study in both so-called "realistic" acting methods and in stylized acting/movement techniques gives me a broad definition of what and actor is and does.

Because of my outsider status, and in order to keep the ideas and information in this paper accessible to a reader who knows little about hula, I have tried to keep the use of Hawaiian language terms to a minimum. When I use the word hula I mean the indigenous dance of Hawai‘i in all its manifestations from ancient to contemporary. Mele are the words or poetry of a song or chant. A kumu hula is a master teacher of the hula who has "graduated" in an ‘ūniki ceremony and has been given permission to teach from his or her kumu hula, and a hālau is a school, in this paper referring specifically to a hula school. For the categories hula ‘auana and hula kahiko, I use the definitions set out by the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival which make musical accompaniment the central determining factor: a hula kahiko is a hula danced to traditional Hawaiian percussion instruments and chant, while a hula ‘auana is a dance accompanied by melodic instruments and song. I use the word "dancer" for one who dances the hula, and "chanter" for an individual who chants the mele and plays either the ipu heke (double gourd percussion instrument) or pahu (wood and skin drum) during a hula kahiko, and the term "singer" or "musician" for those who play instruments and sing the mele during a hula ‘auana. One other term that I use in this paper is kaona, which is the underlying meaning or nuance in a mele. As I have very little practical experience with hula, I have tried to avoid any technical terms for movement motifs, using instead a poetic description focusing on what is experienced by the audience. The spelling of all Hawaiian words is from Mary Kawena Pūku‘i and Samuel H. Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary. The spelling of the names of the kumu and dancers comes from either personal communication or various print sources, particularly the book Nānā i nā Loea Hula. I apologize for any errors.


My first impressions as I watched "Kaulīlua," as danced by Māpuana de Silva in the 1980s educational video Ka Hula Kahiko: Ka Mele Hawai‘i: Hawaiian Musical Traditions was one of a powerful sense of honoring and of the dancer having a strength of purpose. I could not perceive any obvious characterization, but Māpuana de Silva’s eyes were clearly focused at all times and she seemed to be visualizing various things at specific points in the dance. "Kaulīlua" is a hula kahiko danced to the pahu, and in the video, Māpuana de Silva refers to it as one of three special, sacred dances she will teach only to selected students. This is a dance that has a lineage, meaning the choreography has been passed down to Māpuana de Silva by her kumu Maiki Aiu Lake, and to her through generations of kumu hula.

The mele of "Kaulīlua" is very unclear or indirect in its meaning (Emerson 106 and Kaeppler 192). Emerson’s translation tells of a woman named Kaulīlua who is proud and cold, yet fascinating and charming to her lovers, and is compared to the summit of Wai‘ale‘ale on Kaua‘i (Emerson 105). Yet for Kaeppler, this mele is more about ritual images revolving around rain, breath, life, altars, sacred houses, and prosperity (Kaeppler 202). The lower body motifs are rhythmic and basic, mostly a repeated extend-tap-return step, and the upper body movements are straightforward in that they do not curve, circle or swoop much in the transitions from position to position, but are smooth and simple in their execution. The dancer (Māpuana de Silva) has a facial expression that is generally calm and her eyes are clearly focused either on the hands or at something beyond the hands. Changes in expression are subtle, but present, and she appears to be not thinking about "the performance" but about the present moment and the meaning of the dance.

In a personal interview Māpuana de Silva is clear that in "Kaulīlua" she is not playing a character, and in fact very strongly feels that in the way she was taught, the dancer never actually plays a character, but is storyteller. She emphasized that in her tradition, the dancer has a responsibility to remain aware of him or herself and of the audience so he or she can present the dance and mele as taught without embellishment. Rather than "getting lost in the character" or "acting out the action" a dancer is telling about what is happening. "We don’t own the dances," she said, "they are gifts from our teachers . . . we are continuing the stories."

This is not to say that there isn’t visualization or emotion going on in the dance. A deep understanding of the mele, the text, is critical to Māpuana de Silva’s performance as a chanter or dancer, and an integral part of her teaching. When asked what she was visualizing while dancing "Kaulīlua" she replied that the first thing she saw in her mind was her kumu, Maiki Aiu Lake, and that she felt a deep responsibility to making sure that she honored the dance and her teacher. She went on to say that this vision of her kumu and of her husband and partner, Kīhei de Silva, was something that was almost a given, as connections to these two people are with her in everything she does. The second thing she saw, or visualized, was the text—which she emphasized was not a given. As a dancer or a chanter, Māpuana de Silva says she always goes back and rereads the text so she can experience a direct understanding of the Hawaiian words. It is this deep understanding, which includes the kaona, or underlying hidden meanings, that is expressed through the facial expression and the subtleties of the gestures. Māpuana de Silva does not actually teach "facial expression" but says this comes through an understanding of the text. In a published interview Kīhei de Silva speaks about the dancers in their hālau learning the Hawaiian language, "It’s interesting now how many of the students don’t need to be told to smile because they understand so well what they are doing they don’t need the prompt" (Hartwell 49). Māpuana de Silva always teaches by using the words of the mele. She gives an example of a gesture in a particular hula where the dancers raise their arms at a point in the mele that says ki‘eki‘e (in the clouds, Māpuana de Silva’s translation). Rather than counting out loud "1-2-3-up" to get them to do this action, she would say "In the clouds! Not just your hands, your whole body must be ki‘eki‘e!" I believe that this whole body involvement in expression takes the hula to a different place than merely mimetic gesture and facial expression. Through the visualization of the text by both the chanter and the dancers, the whole body relives and evokes the story, and hopefully takes the audience along. Speaking about a performance at the Merrie Monarch Festival, Kīhei de Silva is quoted as saying, "Once you get the choreography down then the real challenge occurs. Can they dance it with the right amount of spirit and expression that can transform the stadium . . . and silence the audience and put them someplace else?" (Hartwell 54).

In dancing "Kaulīlua" Māpuana de Silva describes her main emotions as "the sacredness of the chant and the strength that comes with it" and emphasizes two main images in the chant: cold and warmth, which are in the actual description of the place Wai‘ale‘ale, but also show how one must at times "be both be cold in order to hold your position of strength, yet also be human." Māpuana de Silva also felt that she would dance "Kaulīlua" better today as she has now been to the actual location it describes and has truly felt the warmth of the sun and the sudden chill of the rain there. This sensorial experience of the place, she claims, has given her "a whole new level of understanding."

"Hole Waimea"

In ‘Iolani Luahine’s version of "Hole Waimea" as documented in the video recording Ho‘olaule‘a, one can see the use of facial expression and visualization at a unique and remarkable level. ‘Iolani Luahine is perhaps one of the most amazing examples of expression at work in the hula, and she is as much an actor as a dancer in her performances, which makes her inclusion in this study quite important. Although she passed away in 1978, making an interview impossible, there are numerous published quotes describing her hula performances and of various individuals’ responses to them. "She was a great actress. A great performer. She could evoke moods in a single dance running from catatonic minimalization of movement to the violent gestures of a high manic state. She was a dancer of genius" (Holt 1).

"Hole Waimea" is a hula kahiko accompanied by the ipu. On a literal level the mele is tale of warriors stripping the bark off trees to make spears, but it contains a great number of "euphemisms and double-entendre" (Emerson 69) alluding to lovemaking. ‘Iolani Luahine’s performance of this hula contains a variety of lower body motifs and she travels though the space, changing the location of her body with each section of the dance. There are a great variety of arm and hand gestures, some mimetically showing spear-throwing or gathering bark, others apparently indicating places or even feelings. ‘Iolani Luahine’s face is in constant motion. In the first part of the dance her facial expression is fairly minimal, although the eyes are always focused in the direction of the hands and she appears to be visualizing what the mele describes: the wind, trees and spears. But soon her eyebrows begin to lift while she smiles slightly, giving us the impression of some shared joke or intention, and illustrating very clearly the use of fun and humor in expressing the kaona of the text. Particularly in the middle of the dance, where the mele speaks of love and of a particular lover or sweetheart (Emerson 69 and Pūku‘i, Mahea homepage), ‘Iolani’s face is alive and completely animated. She looks at her hands as they make small circles in front of her, smiles in enjoyment, then as the hands raise above her head, her smile grows bigger and she lifts her eyebrows knowingly, and seems to almost flutter her eyelashes. Even without full knowledge of the lyrics, there is a sense that she is describing some sensual act that is a great deal of fun. This is not overt or overdone in any way, but clearly comes from ‘Iolani Luahine’s understanding of the text and the kaona—the "double-entendre." The enjoyment for both dancer and audience is in the sharing of the real meaning behind the words. In this case, as in mele ma‘i (genital or procreation chants) the kaona is not just an underlying meaning, but also the source of fun and humor. It is the soul of the poetry, and comes not with demonstration or large dramatics, but "with the lift of an eyebrow" (Keaulana, Lecture-Demo).

‘Iolani Luahine has been described as truly embodying a character when she performed. Lois Taylor, a writer for the Honolulu Star Bulletin writes on seeing her dance: "‘Iolani didn’t appear to be a 16 year old girl in a flirtatious mood with her lover, she was a sixteen year old girl. It can’t be explained. From the provocative gleam in her eye to the swing of her hips and the eager little steps as she approached . . . she was a young but not inexperienced girl. The dance ended, she shook out her grey hair and was again a middle-aged woman" (Haar 63, emphasis mine). It seems as though all parts of her body took on a character and expressed an emotion or mood, and at times perhaps this embodiment of a character went as far as losing the self. "When ‘Iolani danced she was the dance. When she chanted she was the chant. ʻWhat are you thinking when you perform?’ I asked ‘Iolani Luahine . . . "I don’t know," said ‘Iolani, "I am not there" (Haar 5).

Perhaps ‘Iolani Luahine’s performances show less about the dance and more about personal style and the flexibility within hula for interpretation. This interpretation comes less in the actual movements of the dance, than of the expressive levels of those movements, and is shown particularly in the face and eyes. She had a very specific style and was possibly a better actor than a technically correct dancer (Pang, Interview). However it was her ability to understand the text and embody it that made her famous. She appeared to connect completely with either the character or the situation of each dance, and through this connection take her audience with her into the world or story of the mele.

"The Kalaupapa Dog Hula"

"The Kalaupapa Dog Hula" documented on the video recording Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture, comes from the Moloka‘i tradition of kumu hula John Ka‘imikaua. The dance is a hula kahiko and accompanied by a pahu. In both the video and in a personal interview John Ka‘imikaua describes this hula as a ceremonial dance that is not generally performed for a public audience but is one that is meant to honor the dog god Pokikumanumanu and describe how he protected the people of Kalaupapa by warning fishermen of danger by howling and by turning his body into a thick fog in order to confuse attackers coming by water.

The movements of this hula are completely unlike any other. The dancer’s body is bent over, with her fingers bent as if her hands are paws, and although the hands never touch the ground, when she moves her arms extend with the legs (i.e.: when the right foot steps, the right hand extends) depicting a dog walking on four legs. There are mimetic actions where the dancer’s entire body appears to become the dog tearing something apart, howling, panting, and snarling. With each of these actions the dancer’s face is completely engaged with teeth bared and eyes appearing to see what is being searched for or attacked. From the point of view of an observer the dancer is clearly embodying the character of a dog, and the driving energy of the chant and the ferocity of the actions and expressions draw you in with feelings of wonder and excitement.

In a personal interview John Ka‘imikaua confirmed that these were indeed mimetic actions of a dog. When asked if the dancer played or portrayed a dog he responded, "She becomes the dog," and emphasized that it was both becoming the god Pokikumanumanu and becoming another dog to honor Pokikumanumanu. John Ka‘imikaua, emphasized the deep spiritual and ancestral connections in hula saying that every gesture has a meaning and that the dances call for a connection to the place and the kūpuna (ancestors, elders) attached to the dance. For all animal dances, the purpose is worship and the dancer is in communication with the gods and the ancestors.

In the interview, a question was raised about whether the mele was being chanted from the point of view of the dog or in the third person telling about the dog. As this mele is sacred and can only be passed on under special conditions, neither the Hawaiian text nor translation is available, but John Ka‘imikaua confirmed that the mele is telling the story in the third person. He spoke both of the words being the foundation of the dance and of the chant merely describing the dance while the movement is the core of this hula. I believe this apparent contradiction speaks of the fluidity between embodiment and storytelling. If the dancer is both the god Pokikumanumanu and a dog honoring Pokikumanumanu, then the relationship between chant and dance can also work in both ways.

John Ka‘imikaua does not literally teach facial gestures. He first teaches the mele and the mo‘olelo (story of the mele); he then teaches the movements of the dance. He tries to impart the feeling and meaning on the dancer but this is really entirely up to the dancer him or herself. Yet he emphasizes the importance of visualization "You have to see what you're dancing about. You have to see it. If you don’t see it in front of you, your face won’t show it" (Ka‘imikaua, Interview). What the dancer actually feels, sees or experiences while dancing is an individual matter. He said that when he asked this particular dancer what she visualized when performing "The Kalaupapa Dog Hula," she replied that she was outside her body watching herself dance. This seemingly out-of-body experience points to a level of enactment that goes beyond embodiment to a place where the dancer is almost "channeling" a character. The emphasis on the ceremonial and spiritual nature of this hula seems to lead the dancer to this almost mystical form of connection with the images evoked, rather than encouraging empathy or emotion.


In "Poli‘ahu" as performed by Annie Lokomaika‘i Lipscomb at the University of Hawai‘i in November 2003, one can really see the emotions of the dancer come to life. The dance is a hula ‘auana choreographed in 1994 by kumu hula Ray Fonseca to a contemporary composition using an arrangement of guitars, piano and vocal harmonies. The story of the mele is of the snow goddess Poli‘ahu expressing her love for chief ‘Aiwohikupua. The English translation of the lyrics are in the first person, telling the story from Poli‘ahu’s point of view, expressing her loneliness at being separated from her love and her memories of his presence. As a non-Hawaiian speaking audience member who originally had no idea what the dance was about, when I first saw "Poli‘ahu" I felt emotions of sadness and longing. I knew from the sound of the music, the movements of the dance and the expressiveness of the dancer that the story was about a woman who had lost someone she loved very much. Annie Lipscomb’s performance of this dance was charged with emotions of love and loss, and even now watching it on a video recording, makes me cry.

The movements of this hula are flowing and soft, and the arms seem to swirl gently from gesture to gesture. There are a number of times in the dance where the arms extend forward, and the dancer appears to be reaching for something moving away from her or just out of her grasp. The dance at times uses levels of the body, with one movement taking the dancer to her knees and covering her face with her hands as if weeping. Even the lower body motifs are quite fluid rather than solidly rhythmic, with the dancer rolling through the foot as she lifts it. The entire body seems to be caressing the air around it and there is a constant flow of expression on the dancer’s face. As "Poli‘ahu" begins, the dancer appears almost joyful, smiling gently at what I perceive to be memories of love, interspersed with moments of sadness and fear at the loss. The emotion and meaning of this dance are expressed in both the facial expression and the phrasing and flow of the movements.

When asked whether or not she feels as if she is actually playing the character of the snow goddess Poli‘ahu during this hula, Annie Lipscomb said yes, she does—but is not sure if anyone else who dances it feels the same way. This taking on of the character seems to be a very personal choice and not one that she has been specifically taught. She went on to say that the facial expression itself is not something she "learned" but that in any hula facial expression comes from an understanding of the text and empathy with the emotions and images in the dance. She emphasized that this feeling of playing of a character is not the same in every dance, and gave an example of a hula about the goddess Pele: "I don’t think, ʻI am her’ but rather ʻsee this is how she would move.’"

The concepts of empathy and observation seem to play a large part in the way Annie Lipscomb approaches a dance as a performer. When she danced "Poli‘ahu" as a teenager, other members of her hālau would ask her how she could obviously understand the dance so well even though she was far too young to have experienced such heartbreak. She says that she believes she found the understanding through empathy with, and observation of her kumu, as he was going through a period of personal loss when he was teaching her the dance. She says she could see his response to the mele and imagined herself in his position.

Annie Lipscomb also spoke about experience and visualization being important to hula, and emphasized the connection between the two. Although she feels visualization is always being used in any hula, the ideal situation when dancing about a particular place, is to actually go to there and experience it and that this "learning through experience" gives inspiration. As she recounted a particular hula that she had performed, comparing her experience of dancing it before and after visiting the place the hula describes, she said, "Once you’ve tried to recreate it with your body, and see it again when it’s not there . . ." and smiled as she could feel the place in her body again. This idea of recreation and remembering what one has smelled, heard, seen or felt rather than simply imagining it is what makes the difference.

"Pi‘i Ana ‘A‘ama"

Kumu hula Michael Pili Pang’s choreography of "Pi‘i Ana ‘A‘ama" (Climbing are ‘A‘ama Crabs), as performed at the University of Hawai‘i in April 2003 cannot be defined as either kahiko or ‘auana. It uses a traditional mele, and the dance is done to a solo chanted voice, but in creating the hula, Michael Pang was not as concerned with using movements that were necessarily from a hula vocabulary as he was with creating the character who is the focus of this chant and with telling her story (Pang, Interview). Other versions of the hula mu‘umu‘u exist, but Michael Pang created this particular dance in the year 2000.

This hula is of a very specific type called a hula mu‘umu‘u or "dance of the maimed spirit" (Pang’s translation) which speaks of a young woman named Manamanaiakaluea who is a disembodied spirit with no arms or legs. In the story she is playing in the tide pools when she is visited by the goddess Hi‘iaka, who gives her a gift of a hala (pandanus) lei. Eventually, Hi‘iaka not only brings this spirit back to its body (and therefore back to life) but restores her arms and legs. The mele is from Manamanaiakaluea’s point of view, telling the story through her eyes.

In Michael Pang’s choreography, the first element the audience receives is the chant, while the dancer is on her knees bent over so that her head is on the floor in front of her. As the chant progresses, she emerges by raising her body, and we see Manamanaiakaluea playing in the tide pools as the dancer begins a series of torso sways and circles. Her arms are folded in from the elbows, allowing for gestures only of the upper arm. The restrictions of playing a character with such specific physical limitations mean that the torso, neck and head become extremely expressive, with the dancer pulsing and swaying in complete connection to the phrasing of the chant. For much of the dance Manamanaiakaluea is trying to get the hala lei around her neck from where it lays on the ground in front of her. She tries to nudge it with her head, move it with her elbows and she finally succeeds by picking it up with her teeth and flipping it over her head. Once the lei is around her neck, we see Manamanaiakaluea being healed. The dancer’s arms gently extend one at a time, her hands reaching out and her face expressing joy and wonder. She stretches out to reach into the sky, then begins to leave the stage in a kneeling walk movement where she never actually stands up but moves forward extending the leg to step onto the foot then the knee. As an observer I absolutely empathize with this character and experience feelings of frustration and longing in her struggle to get the lei over her head. There is a distinct feeling of relief and happiness when she succeeds and then one of happiness and wonder as she discovers her arms and legs. The expressiveness and emotion of this hula comes from the phrasing of the movements linked to the chant.

The very distinct physicality in this hula is necessitated by the character, rather than it being an expressive choice on the part of the choreographer or dancer. This, in conjunction with the fact that the mele is written in the first person from Manamanaiakaluea’s point of view means that in this hula the dancer is very definitely playing or embodying this character. Michael Pang said that a hula mu‘umu‘u was one of few hula where the dancer does in fact play a character, and in creating his choreography he emphasized character exploration. He was able to work very closely with the dancer to evoke the right mood and emotional life for the piece. He spoke of working with an investigation of movements to discover the expressive capabilities of a body that had no arms or legs, then made it very personal asking the dancer to imagine what she would do or how she would feel in this situation.

When he teaches, Michael Pang describes how he teaches expression in the gestures. He gives an example of teaching a group of children an arm gesture meaning to embrace or love, and telling them to think about holding a teddy bear or hugging their grandma. He also emphasized the importance of a dancer not just "looking into space" but really knowing what they are looking at. It is critical that a dancer first understand the mele, and then the kaona, and let this show in their movements and face. A dancer can get to this level of expression by using whatever images work for them; for instance if a dancer needs to express a feeling of sensual attraction or excitement in the kaona, while the text and gesture indicates a flower, then perhaps for a group of young women, thinking about the image of an attractive young man will get the desired effect. As a teacher, he offers these images to his students to help them fully understand the meanings of and behind the words. He also spoke of his kumu, Maiki Aiu Lake and her emphasis on focus and intention with the movements, and on how gesture was connected to the dancers entire being: "The movement wasn’t just an arm gesture, it was a whole body gesture. From head to toe you say ʻThis is my flower.’"

In a lecture-demonstration at the University of Hawai‘i in March 2004, kumu hula Winona Beamer and Maile Loo Beamer spoke specifically about the hula mu‘umu‘u as being a hula of great emotion and character embodiment. Maile Loo Beamer spoke of Moana Beamer’s performances of a hula mu‘umu‘u where she becomes so involved with the despair and longing of the character she is dancing that she cries real tears and cannot let go of the emotions even after she has finished dancing. "It’s not fake. The pain she feels while dancing is real . . . She [Moana Beamer] is a dancer very connected to her emotions."


From my observations of these five hula and from the ideas and opinions of these few hula practitioners, it is clear that the hula dancer does at times use characterization, visualization and emotion when they perform. Although a study of only five dances and a few interviews is hardly conclusive, it appears that the use of these three "actorly" elements is a personal choice on the part of the dancer and that the choice of which elements are used and to what level differ from hālau to hālau. In terms of characterization, there are some specific hula such as animal dances and the hula mu‘umu‘u where the dancer does portray a specific character, while there are others, like hula about the goddess Pele where certain dancers feel as if they are playing Pele and others who feel as though they are dancing about Pele (Beamer, Lecture-Demo and Lipscomb, Interview). There are also hula that are obviously telling "about" a famous place, person or event. Points to look at are whether the mele is written in the first or third person, and also whether the movements of the dance indicate seeing an action being done or whether the dancer him or herself performs the action. I believe that a dancer can shift between being "inside the story" as a character, and "outside the story" as a storyteller. When ‘Iolani Luahine dances "Hole Waimea" at moments she appears to play a warrior as she sees the forest and gathers bark, yet she is clearly not "in character" when she recognizes the sexual double meaning of the mele and shares the kaona with the audience. Some dancers use characterization at times, but not at others. When asked whether they ever portray a character in hula, both Winona Beamer and Maile Loo Beamer replied yes immediately (Beamer, Lecture-Demo), yet in a later interview Maile Loo said, "You still have to embody something when you’re dancing. Not to take on a character, but, for example, you are trying to capture the spirit of a place, or the spirit of a person. You relate it, but you’re not trying to move the way that person moves when you are dancing about them. But you are trying to convey the spirit of that person. So there is a connection in that you are still acting, but it’s not you becoming someone" (M. L. Beamer, Interview). Whether a dancer feels a particular "emotion" during a dance, and how deeply they feel that emotion is also very personal. I think that Winona Beamer sums it up beautifully when she said, "It’s your own business how much empathy you put into your expression" (Winona Beamer, Lecture-Demo). What seems to be important is the individual dancer’s level of understanding, which changes with age and experience. Empathy seems to be key and some of the methods described for achieving this (Michael Pang’s methods of teaching by offering personal parallel images, and Annie Lipscomb’s way of accessing understanding for "Poli‘ahu") echo method acting techniques like the "Magic If" where an actor asks a series of "If I was in this situation . . ." questions in order to understand a character, or a "key and transfer" exercise where an actor imagines something personal in place of the reality in order to evoke an emotional response (for example imagining someone you love in place of the other actor who you may not really be in love with). There are differences of course, but the similarities between these methods used by hula practitioners and western actors is striking. In hula it appears that is always some level of visualization. Even in a tourist focused how-to-hula book, visualization is emphasized: "A good dancer visualizes what she describes—the mountains are cool and high, the flowers fresh and fragrant—when she knows her story, her hula can be enjoyed by all" (Murray ix). The dancer "sees" what they are dancing, sees the mountain or the tree or the lover, and that this visualization of the images described in the mele allows the audience to see them too. There seems to be, in every dancer or kumu interviewed, an emphasis on sensorial learning and sensory recall. It appears to be a necessity that a dancer has experienced the sights and sounds and smells of the location she or he is dancing, and if they truly understand in a visceral way, the expression in the face and the body are richer. "It’s not just a mountain; if you’re dancing about it, it’s a beautiful mountain. It has admiration and it has pride. All those beautiful things are in your body and your expression" (W. Beamer, Lecture-Demo).

For any hula, what seems to be important in all hālau and to all dancers is the importance of truly understanding the mele and transmitting the meaning of the text. Whether a dancer does this by imagining she "becomes" a beautiful princess for "Liliʻu Ē" or whether she visualizes seeing a beautiful princess doesn’t matter because the result is the same: the emotions created by the characterization or visualization will generate an emotional response in the dancer which will put energy and intent into the gestures and movements, and allow for subtle changes in facial expression that will in turn transmit the feelings and meanings to the audience. It is all about "taking it all in, making it your own, and then putting it back out in a meaningful way" (Maile Loo Beamer, Lecture-Demo).

© Colleen Lanki, 2004

The essay above was written by Colleen Lanki as a final paper for the UH Mānoa graduate level course Dance 655 as taught by Judy Van Zile and Victoria Holt Takamine in the spring semester of 2004. It is published here with the author's generous consent; she retains all rights to this essay and no part of it may be used or reproduced without her written permission.


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