Nothing is more widely recognized as Hawaiian than hula, and yet its true significance is often unseen. The roots of hula are deep in the history, culture and religion of Hawaii as it existed before sustained contact with other nations. Each movement of the hands or feet unites with the chant of the melody to tell an ancient story.
My first clue that it is more than an entertaining dance was to see people of all ages engaged in hula: very young children through grey-haired matrons, women and men alike. At that point, I thought it might be more like a folk dance, similar to square dancing on the mainland. You learn the moves as a child and can enjoy them for the rest of your life.
However, hula is celebrated as more than a custom. In pre-contact Hawaii, it was linked with worship. Specific movements not only tell a story, but are also linked with practitioners and schools as an oral transmission of culture. The way that hula was taught from master to student was interrupted in the 1800s when so many Hawaiians died of disease. Now preserving hula is a way of reaching back to its origins and carrying forward not only the practice but the understanding of its role in society.
Certainly, there are performances of hula that are more like a Las Vegas show than a worship service. I think now the comparison I would draw is with gospel music. Not every performance of a gospel song is a prayer, but its roots are firmly in faith whether sung in a church or on a concert stage. You needn’t be a Christian to understand that the song is a plea from petitioner to a very personal deity. If you look closely, hula also tells a story that unites inpidual, family and nature in aloha.