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Explaining Hula Movements

How can I make my dancing look truly Hawaiian?

RealHula virtual student from - are you ready? - Ukraine! - asked about achieving a truly Hawaiian look to her dancing. I have made my best effort to attempt to communicate those concepts in words. As is often the case, I think the questions asked by one haumana may reflect a similar question on the minds of many. With that in mind I am sharing my response to my Ukrainian haumana who asked "How can I make my dancing look truly Hawaiian?"

This will be very difficult using only words - but perhaps as a dancer you can know how to relate verbal concepts to your body movement, we will attempt that together.

The first thing to know is that the movements in hula are absolutely opposite of all other dance forms. What I mean by that is that in other dance forms, the dancer must anticipate the beat and be there on the first count. Hula is opposite of this. Because the hula is language driven, not just rhythm driven, the music and the words PULL the dancer. In addition to that, the hip is always 1⁄2 count behind the foot placement - that is what gives hula that languid look that is so hypnotic when done properly.

The Hawaiians lived in nature, and were keen observers of the natural movements around them. They took notice of how the wind moved the individual leaves of the palm trees. Just as the tree does not anticipate that the wind is coming and therefore lay down in preparation for itʻs arrival, but responds to the touch of the wind, then releases, so do the hands and the hips of the hula dancer respond to the words and the rhythm - always responding - never pushing in anticipation. We notice that the individual leaves on the branch move separately - not as a single unit. So do the hula fingers each have a part of the movement to share. No stiff, Barbie Doll hands molded into a solid shape.

They also observed how the ocean builds up energy, rolls to shore, seem to take a breath to build up energy and then returns to begin again. They incorporated all of these natural movements into the body. As a hula dancer, we actually bring the natural world into our bodies when we dance. We get in touch with the rhythm of nature - we take a breath and release ourselves into this natural flow.

We carry the endless movement of the ocean in our hips when we do the kāholo. Every movement must be prefaced by preparation. The preparation for hula is to have the upper body erect, knees bent, all of the weight on the left foot, the left hip raised as though you are going to tuck it under your left armpit, the right foot in a tap position next to the left foot in preparation for the first step. (Whew! Did you get all of that?) Every step begins with preparation.

With the first step the left hip is raised by rolling the weight from heel to toe of the left foot as the right foot is placed flat on the floor, heel touching first (so many dancers dance on the balls of their feet - this is not Polynesian. Polynesian dance carries the weight on the heels whether itʻs Maori, Tahitian or Hawaiian.).

The second movement is the hip releasing as all of your weight gets placed on the right foot (weight on heel first) which then begins the same preparation on the right. The movement of the hips is a figure-eight standing on edge. The second count is the hardest to perfect - it must have as much preparation as the first count. Which means the right hip must be lifted on the right as though you will tuck it under your right armpit.

Counts three and four and the hardest, and the ones that will make the most difference in your overall look! On count three you begin a two count preparation. The hip takes two counts to complete a much larger preparation. When my students kaholo I often chant “fast, fast, s - l - o - w and.... as they move right, left, right and big preparation.

Most non-Hawaiʻi trained hula dancer miss this very important aspect (as do many Hawaiʻi dancers). They cut off a portion of count four and rush to count one. No! Count-one must p-u-l-l you away - reluctantly - from count-four. I try to get my students to use their breath - I say “dance on your breath”... inhale on count four as you do a big preparation and exhale as you release all of that pent-up energy created in preparation of count one. Neither the hand, the hips nor the feet should ever be ahead of the beat by even a fraction.

The knees, of course, are the pistons that drive the hip, which is why we must ai haʻa, or bend our knees. I like to relate it to riding a bicycle. When one pedal is down, the other pedal is up. If we put our hands out flat, pressed to either side of our hip palm-down and then imagine that your hands are now your foot, when we step right, the left hip will be high and when we step left the right hip will be lifted. This is a very visual way of learning to move the hip.

In my tradition we roll our foot just as we do when we walk. When we walk we step forward with the right foot, but our weight is still on the left foot until we roll our weight off of the left foot and transfer it to the right foot. Do this very slowly in front of a mirror and you will see that the hip and the foot do not move forward at the same time. Notice how the foot is rolled from heel to toe as the weight is shifted. Polynesian dance takes the body as it moves naturally and exaggerates the movement in the dance.


If you havenʻt studied our Basic Hula DVD, I would encourage you to do so. You can see it being taught and executed....each step. I hope this is of some help to all of our valued virtual students out there around the world dancing hula together with us here in the motherland. Joyous dancing!

~ Kumu Kea

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