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What is the Difference between a Hula Studio and Hula Halau?

If you live in any place other than Hawai'i, you are more likely to be familiar with the organization of a Dance Studio than a Halau. The familiar Dance Studio is a business enterprise, which occupies a facility designed for teaching and rehearsing the dance. The Studio will have the owner who is usually the principle teacher and artistic director. As a rule there are several dance disciplines taught within the studio and there are often several teachers who work with the principle artistic director. The studio usually has some staff. These may be paid staff, they may be volunteer staff, or, they may be working in exchange for lessons. The staff may act as the receptionist, they will also answer phones, collect fees and take care of a myriad of other details for the owner/artistic director. There are also the smaller studios, which teach only one dance discipline, and the owner is the artistic director and staff. 

In Hawai'i we have Hula Studios, which operate on much the same basis as mainland dance studios with the exception that only Polynesian dance forms are taught, usually Hula, Tahitian and sometimes, Maori and/or Samoan dance. These studios may rent a commercial site and often have staff on some level. The Kumu Hula, or hula master, is the owner/artistic director. If there are others who teach classes in the studio, they will be advanced students that the Kumu Hula has herself/himself trained in order to preserve the integrity of the style being perpetuated by the owner. The artistic director maintains complete control over every aspect of the learning that takes place in this type of Hula Studio. You could say it's a "my way or the highway" approach to the process. This is a deeply embedded cultural tradition within the Hula and must be understood by all students from the beginning.

The traditional Halau Hula, however, is a different sort of thing. It is usually organized for the explicit purpose of transmitting the knowledge acquired by the Kumu Hula (hula master) in his or her formal training. Each traditionally trained Kumu Hula comes from a specific Hula tradition and hula genealogy. The knowledge that he/she has received comes from an unbroken line of other Kumu Hula extending back in time to antiquity. In this tradition, the Kumu Hula is the textbook for the students, and the Kumu Hula has an imperative to transmit the knowledge he/she has received accurately to the next generation.


It is not uncommon to have both a halau and a studio within the same organization. The traditionally defined halau is by invitation only. The studio is a commercial enterprise. I, myself, have a small Hula Studio, Pattye's Hula Studio and an halau, Na Puakea O Ko'olaupoko. Within the studio we learn kahiko hula and auana (modern) hula. I also teach Tahitian dance and sometime Maori or other dance forms. Within the traditional halau I teach only to selected students: those who show the interest and potential for completing the formal hula training with the possibility of, one day, earning one of the titles such as 'Olapa, Ho'opa'a or Kumu Hula for themselves. These students are invited to attend special classes with the goal of earning the 'uniki rite, or traditional graduation, at one of these three levels of hula training. While all of my students learn numbers from my tradition, it is within the traditional halau that I formally transmit the knowledge that my Kumu Hula has given to me in my training. It is here that I perpetuate my specific traditions to the next generation.

Within the traditional halau, there is only one mind and one will, that being the mind and will of the Kumu Hula. There are two important positions within the structure: the po'opua'a and alaka'i. Sometimes they are the same person. Sometimes they are separate individuals. This depends largely on the size of the halau. Let's look at the alaka'i first.The alaka'i acts as the example for the students. She/he models the style and execution of the dance for the other students. The alaka'i should be the most accomplished dancer within the hâlau; the one who most closely models the style perpetuated by the Kumu Hula's traditions. The po'opua'a takes care of the myriad details of the halau,acting as the strong right hand for the Kumu. These duties may include seeing that costumes or lei are

prepared; scheduling events on the calendar; preparing written texts for students; or any one of a thousand things that can be done to relieve the Kumu of details so that the Kumu is free to concentrate on transmitting the knowledge. 

Within the traditional halau there is a specific body of material which the haumana (student) is expected to master at each level of study. Please take note that I did not say, "learn" - I said, "master"! The halau training perpetuates the ancient ways of learning, which is: dancing the number until is imprinted in your body's memory. It is not a matter of mental learning, but a matter of having the mele (hula number) in your sinews. I can't tell you the number of times my mind might be uncertain about some hula, but if I begin dancing, my body will remember what my mind has forgotten. This is the basis for traditional learning. This, and the one-on-one transmitting of the accumulated knowledge from the Kumu to the haumana (student) so that this knowledge is passed on to the succeeding generations within the lineage.


Today the term halau is commonly used to indicate any group teaching or practicing hula. The term "halau hula" can be defined as a school for learning hula, so this is not an inappropriate use of the word. Just as kumu can be defined as teacher, so a kumu hula can mean a hula teacher. However, if you are looking to understand the traditional meanings, a traditional halau is a dedicated school for transmitting the knowledge from the Kumu Hula to the next generation in an anciently structured way. Just as a traditional Kumu Hula has achieved that title by mastering specified bodies of material at each of the three levels of training in order to be awarded that title at the 'ûniki rites as dictated by the specific traditions of the Kumu's lineage. 

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