The Role of Hula in Hawaiian Education and Cultural Preservation


Hula plays a multifaceted role in Hawaiian education and cultural preservation. It serves as a vehicle for transmitting history, values, and knowledge, fostering a strong sense of identity and community, and contributing to the overall well-being of individuals and the broader Hawaiian society.

It holds a significant role in Hawaiian education and cultural preservation. It is much more than just a dance form; it is a living tradition that encompasses history, storytelling, spirituality, and community. 

But before we start with its role in Hawaiian education and cultural preservation, let’s say a few words about the dance itself:

Hula Dance Explained

Hula is a traditional dance form and cultural expression that originates from the indigenous people of Hawaii, known as Native Hawaiians. It is a complex art that combines dance, music, chanting, storytelling, and cultural symbolism. Hula holds a central place in Hawaiian history, spirituality, and social gatherings, and it serves as a way to pass down cultural knowledge, preserve traditions, and celebrate the Hawaiian way of life.

Hula can be divided into two main forms: "hula kahiko" and "hula ʻauana." Hula kahiko is a traditional style of hula that is characterized by its slower, rhythmic movements and chants (mele) performed in the Hawaiian language. It often involves intricate hand gestures, footwork, and storytelling that convey historical events, genealogy, mythology, and the connection between people and the natural world. The movements and chants are deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture and are often performed in costumes made from natural materials.

Hula ʻAuana is a more modern style of hula that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hula ʻauana incorporates influences from Western music and dance styles, and it is often accompanied by instruments like the ukulele and guitar. The movements are typically more fluid and graceful, and the mele may be performed in both Hawaiian and English languages. Hula ʻauana is often associated with celebrations, festivals, and entertainment.

Different Aspects of the Role of Hula in Hawaiian Education and Cultural Preservation

As mentioned, Hula is not just about the physical movements; it also carries deep cultural and spiritual significance. It reflects the Hawaiian worldview, connecting people to their ancestors, the land, the ocean, and the divine. Through hula, Hawaiians express emotions, tell stories, celebrate important events, and maintain a strong connection to their heritage.

Oral Tradition and Storytelling

Oral tradition and storytelling are deeply intertwined with hula, the traditional Hawaiian dance form. Hula serves as a powerful vehicle for transmitting cultural knowledge, history, and values through movement, chants (mele), and gestures. Here's how oral tradition and storytelling are integral to hula:

1. Mele (Chants) and Lyrics:

Hula performances are often accompanied by mele, which are poetic chants or songs that convey stories, emotions, and cultural insights. Mele are a central element of hula and are traditionally sung in the Hawaiian language. They provide a means of storytelling and serve as a connection to the past, sharing legends, genealogy, historical events, and the relationship between humans and nature. Through mele, the dancers and the audience gain a deeper understanding of the themes and narratives being portrayed.

2. Dance Movements and Gestures:

Hula movements are not mere choreography; they are a form of visual storytelling. Each movement, gesture, and stance has specific meanings and associations. Dancers use their hands, arms, hips, and feet to express the words of the mele and convey the emotions and imagery contained in the lyrics. The combination of dance and mele allows for a multi-dimensional narrative experience that engages both sight and sound.

3. Cultural Symbolism:

Hula often incorporates cultural symbolism that conveys deeper meanings. For example, specific hand gestures may represent natural elements like waves or winds, while hip movements may symbolize the swaying of palm trees. These symbolic movements and gestures communicate ideas, concepts, and stories that are integral to Hawaiian culture.

4. Connection to Ancestry and Spirituality:

Hula serves as a bridge between the physical world and the spiritual realm. In traditional Hawaiian belief, ancestors (kūpuna) play a significant role in guiding and influencing the living. Through hula, dancers connect with their ancestors, paying homage to their wisdom and experiences. The mele and movements often invoke the spirits of ancestors, fostering a sense of continuity and spiritual connection.

5. Preservation of Language:

Hula contributes to the preservation of the Hawaiian language. Many mele are sung in Hawaiian, and learning and performing these chants help keep the language alive, especially in a contemporary context where the language has faced challenges.

6. Community Engagement and Learning:

Oral tradition and storytelling in hula extend beyond the individual dancer. Learning hula often takes place within a community setting, where experienced practitioners pass down knowledge to newer generations. This interactive process fosters a sense of belonging, shared learning, and a strong connection to cultural roots.

7. Adaptation and Innovation:

While hula is deeply rooted in tradition, it has also evolved over time. Contemporary hula incorporates new themes, experiences, and artistic expressions while retaining core cultural elements. This adaptability ensures that hula remains relevant and engaging for successive generations.

In essence, hula exemplifies the profound impact of oral tradition and storytelling in conveying the essence of Hawaiian culture, history, and spirituality. Through the intricate interplay of mele, movement, and cultural symbolism, hula brings the past to life, enriches the present, and ensures the preservation of Hawaiian heritage for the future.

Hula in Hawaiian Education

Connection to the Land and Nature:

Hula often incorporates movements and themes that are closely tied to the natural world, such as ocean waves, wind, and flora. By engaging with these elements, hula helps foster a deep connection to the land, environment, and ancestral practices, encouraging a sense of stewardship and respect for nature.

Hula plays a significant role in terms of connecting practitioners and audiences to the land and nature in Hawaii. This connection is deeply rooted in the cultural worldview and spiritual beliefs of the Hawaiian people.

1. Incorporation of Natural Elements:

Hula movements often mirror the rhythms and forms of nature. Dancers may imitate the swaying of trees, the crashing of waves, the flight of birds, and the movements of ocean currents. These movements allow participants to embody the essence of the land, water, and skies, fostering a sense of unity with the natural world.

2. Celebration of Natural Beauty:

Many hula mele (chants or songs) celebrate the beauty and wonder of Hawaii's landscapes. Dancers use their performances to honor the islands' breathtaking scenery, from majestic mountains to lush valleys to pristine beaches. By showcasing the splendor of the land, hula encourages a deep appreciation for Hawaii's natural environment.

3. Spiritual Connection:

Hawaiian spirituality and cosmology are intertwined with the natural world. Hula provides a means for practitioners to connect with the divine through the elements of nature. Dancers often evoke the spirits of ancestors, gods, and nature itself, creating a spiritual link that reinforces the sacredness of the land.

4. Environmental Stewardship:

The strong connection between hula and the land nurtures a sense of responsibility for its preservation. Practitioners who deeply value and understand the significance of the environment are more likely to engage in sustainable practices and advocate for the protection of Hawaii's fragile ecosystems.

5. Cultural Teachings and Lore:

Hula serves as a vessel for passing down traditional knowledge about the land, such as navigation, farming, and herbal medicine. Mele may contain practical information about navigating the ocean or identifying plants, reflecting the intimate relationship Hawaiians have with their surroundings.

6. Ritual and Ceremony:

Hula is often performed in rituals, ceremonies, and festivals that are closely tied to the cycles of nature. For example, hula may be part of agricultural ceremonies celebrating the planting or harvesting of crops. These rituals reinforce the connection between human activities and the natural world.

7. Sense of Place and Identity:

Hula helps individuals develop a strong sense of place and cultural identity. By engaging with the land through movement and storytelling, practitioners connect to the historical and spiritual roots of their community, fostering a deep sense of belonging.

Cultural Identity and Sense of Belonging: 

Hula plays a vital role in shaping cultural identity and fostering a strong sense of belonging among the Hawaiian people. It serves as a powerful tool for connecting individuals to their heritage, ancestors, and community. Here's how hula contributes to cultural identity and a sense of belonging:

1. Cultural Preservation and Revival:

Hula serves as a means of preserving and reviving traditional Hawaiian cultural practices that were once suppressed or marginalized. Engaging in hula allows Hawaiians to reconnect with their roots and revive cultural traditions that were integral to their ancestors' way of life.

2. Ancestral Connection:

Through hula, individuals can establish a profound connection to their ancestors. Many hula mele (chants or songs) honor the accomplishments, stories, and struggles of ancestors, fostering a sense of respect and reverence for those who came before. This connection provides a tangible link to the past and reinforces a sense of continuity across generations.

3. Expressing Values and Identity:

Hula provides a platform for expressing and celebrating Hawaiian values, beliefs, and ways of life. The movements, mele, and costumes used in hula performances are infused with cultural symbolism, allowing practitioners to convey their cultural identity and beliefs to both themselves and their audiences.

4. Community and Ohana (Family):

Participating in hula often takes place within a group or hālau (school) setting. These hālau become like extended families, creating a sense of community, support, and camaraderie among members. Sharing the experience of learning, practicing, and performing hula strengthens bonds and enhances the feeling of belonging.

5. Cultural Continuity:

Hula helps pass down cultural knowledge, stories, and traditions from one generation to the next. By actively engaging in hula, individuals contribute to the continuity of their cultural heritage and ensure that it remains alive and relevant in contemporary times.

6. Connection to the Land and Environment:

As mentioned before, hula's connection to the natural world also contributes to a sense of belonging. Engaging with movements and mele that reflect the land, ocean, and skies reinforces the idea that Hawaiians are an integral part of their environment.

7. Identity in a Diverse World:

Hula has become a symbol of Hawaiian culture both within the islands and beyond. In a global context, hula helps Hawaiians maintain a unique identity and cultural distinctiveness, even as they interact with other cultures and societies.

8. Sense of Pride and Empowerment:

Participating in hula can instill a sense of pride and empowerment in individuals, as they embrace their cultural heritage and contribute to the preservation and celebration of their identity. 

Language Preservation:

Hula serves as a living embodiment of the Hawaiian language, providing a dynamic and culturally significant context for language preservation. By embracing the language in their performances and interactions, hula practitioners contribute to the ongoing revival and vitality of the Hawaiian language, ensuring that it continues to be spoken, understood, and cherished for generations to come.

Language Preservation

1. Mele (Chants) and Lyrics:

Many hula performances are accompanied by mele, which are poetic chants or songs. These mele are often sung in the Hawaiian language and carry profound cultural and historical meanings. By learning, performing, and engaging with mele, practitioners actively engage with the language, helping to keep it alive. 

2. Language Usage in Context:

Hula provides a practical and meaningful context for using the Hawaiian language. Through mele, dancers practice pronunciation, intonation, and vocabulary. This practical application of the language enhances language fluency and comprehension. 

3. Vocabulary Enrichment:

Hula mele often incorporate specialized vocabulary related to nature, geography, history, and cultural practices. As dancers engage with these mele, they learn and reinforce these specific terms, contributing to the preservation of specialized linguistic knowledge. 

4. Cultural Context and Identity:

Language is intertwined with cultural identity. By using the Hawaiian language in hula performances, practitioners establish a deeper connection to their cultural heritage and contribute to the continued existence of the language. 

5. Language Revitalization Efforts:

Hula's use of the Hawaiian language supports broader efforts to revitalize and promote the use of the language. As more people engage with Hawaiian through hula, there is a greater incentive to learn and use the language in other aspects of life. 

6. Educational Opportunities:

Hula is often taught in formal educational settings, providing an avenue for language learning. Schools and hālau (hula schools) may incorporate language instruction alongside hula training, creating a comprehensive learning experience. 

7. Cultural Transmission to Future Generations:

Through the performance and teaching of hula, older generations pass down the Hawaiian language to younger generations. This intergenerational transmission is essential for the language's continued survival.

8. Public Awareness and Exposure:

Hula performances, whether in traditional settings or on public stages, draw attention to the beauty and richness of the Hawaiian language. This exposure can inspire interest in learning the language and encourage its use in various contexts.

9. Bilingual Performances:

Some hula performances incorporate both Hawaiian and English lyrics, allowing audiences to engage with the language even if they are not fluent speakers. This bilingual approach widens the reach of language preservation efforts.

Community and Social Cohesion: 

Hula acts as a unifying force that brings people together, promotes cooperation, and strengthens social bonds. Through shared experiences, collaborative efforts, and a common commitment to cultural preservation, hula nurtures a sense of community and social cohesion that extends far beyond the dance itself.

1. Group Dynamics:

Hula is often practiced and performed in group settings, known as hālau hula (hula schools). These hālau function as close-knit communities where individuals learn, practice, and perform hula together. The collaborative nature of hula promotes teamwork, cooperation, and a shared sense of purpose. 

2. Interdependence:

Hula requires participants to synchronize their movements, timing, and expressions, fostering a sense of interdependence and unity. Dancers rely on each other's contributions to create a harmonious and visually compelling performance. 

3. Sense of Belonging:

Joining a hālau or participating in hula activities provides individuals with a sense of belonging and identity. Practitioners become part of a supportive community that shares common values, traditions, and goals. 

4. Multigenerational Participation:

Hula often involves individuals of different ages, from children to elders. This multigenerational aspect strengthens family and community ties, as grandparents, parents, and children come together to share experiences and learn from one another. 

5. Cultural Transmission:

Hula is traditionally passed down from experienced practitioners to newcomers. This mentorship process fosters strong relationships between teachers and students, creating a sense of mentorship and intergenerational knowledge transfer. 

6. Celebratory Events:

Hula is frequently performed at various community events, festivals, and celebrations. These performances serve as focal points for community gathering, where people come together to enjoy the art, share experiences, and strengthen their connections. 

7. Cultural Exchange:

Hula's popularity has extended beyond Hawaii, allowing for cultural exchange and connection with people from different backgrounds. This interaction fosters understanding, appreciation, and a sense of global community. 

8. Personal Growth and Well-Being:

Hula encourages personal growth, self-expression, and a sense of accomplishment among participants. These positive experiences contribute to individual well-being and, in turn, enhance the overall sense of community and social cohesion.

9. Preserving Cultural Values:

Participating in hula reinforces cultural values, traditions, and a shared sense of identity. As individuals engage in the practice and performance of hula, they contribute to the preservation and continuation of Hawaiian cultural heritage.

10. Networking and Support:

Hula practitioners often develop strong social networks within the hālau and broader hula community. These networks provide opportunities for support, friendships, and shared experiences beyond the realm of dance.


Hula, the traditional Hawaiian dance form, plays a multifaceted role in Hawaiian culture. It serves as a vibrant embodiment of oral tradition, storytelling, and mele (chants) that transmit historical narratives, spiritual connections, and environmental wisdom. Hula fosters a profound bond with the land and nature through symbolic movements and celebrates Hawaii's natural beauty. Additionally, hula strengthens cultural identity and a sense of belonging by preserving language, promoting community, and offering a platform for intergenerational transmission. Overall, hula is a living tradition that weaves together language, heritage, community, and reverence for the environment, contributing to the preservation and celebration of Hawaiian culture.

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