Behind the Scenes Pt. 2

BEHIND THE SCENES AT A KAUAI LUAU PART 2: A WINDOW INTO ANCIENT HAWAII

From the moment they step onto the Kauai Hawaii luau grounds, a luau offers guests the opportunity to experience the history of the islands. Start with the view – ocean waves, green grass, flickering tiki torches, beautifully decorated tables heaping with fresh fish and golden pineapple. The scene we are greeted with arriving at a luaus in Kauai today has not changed much since King Kamehameha’s first luau in 1819. Movies and television have shown us many images of arriving luau guests being draped in beautiful fresh flower lei. We know that lei will not only be draped over arriving Kauai luau guests, but will also decorate the dancers in the after-dinner show. Images of Hawaiian hula dancers performing at luaus in Kauai are just as well-known as pictures of guests receiving lei. These dancers have gracefully glided straight out of Hawaii’s ancient past to entertain us at a modern Hawaii luau with the hula, one of Hawaii’s oldest and most loved luau traditions. A lot of behind-the-scenes preparations go into the food, decoration and entertainment at a Kauai luau. Two of the most interesting aspects of the preparation for a Hawaii luau revolve around the gift of lei and the dancing of the hula.

When greeted with lei at a luau in Kauai, we are participating in a tradition that first traveled to the islands in ancient times with the original Polynesian settlers. The tradition of giving lei in the islands is even older than the Hawaiian luau, and lei signified many things in ancient Hawaii. The gift of carefully constructed fresh lei might mean welcome or goodbye – the same reasons lei are given at Kauai luau today. However, in those times lei could also represent peace agreements between warring island chiefs or symbolize a truce between two fighting clans. This is one Hawaii tradition that has changed -the lei given at a Kauai luau will probably never symbolize a truce between two tables drinking Mai Tai! During the days of Hawaii’s monarchy, the lei tradition became a way of welcoming visitors to the island with the spirit of aloha. It is in the aloha sprit that lei are made and given to guests at modern Kauai luau. As the meaning surrounding the gift of lei has changed, the preparation necessary to create lei has remained the same. If you are getting ready to welcome Kauai Hawaii luau guests with a fresh-flower lei, your behind the scenes preparation will be much the same today as in Hawaii’s past.

The first step in preparing to greet your Hawaii luau guests with a fresh flower lei is to gather the blossoms. Would you believe that fifty blossoms must be gathered, inspected, and declared flawless for every guest welcomed at a Kauai luau? It’s true. For one single-strand 40” lei, the usual length given to Hawaii luau guests, fifty perfect blooms are required. However, you can’t just hand a person arriving at a luau fifty blossoms – it won’t have the same effect! In order to form lei worth giving to a Hawaii luau guest, the blossoms must be stitched together using a steel lei needle which is carefully guided through the face and out the back of each flower. If all this behind-the-scenes work is necessary to drape lei around the neck of every person arriving at a Kauai luau, imagine how much effort is required to decorate the hula dancers in the luaus after dinner show. Each dancer sometimes wears up to three or four lei for each Hawaii luau performance. Although a lot of behind the scenes work takes place so that each guest arriving at a Kauai luau can be greeted with lei, even more backstage time and effort goes into the hula performance taking place each night on the luau stage.

The after-dinner show at a Kauai luaus requires more behind the scenes activity than any other element. Hawaiian luau after-dinner shows usually include many different Polynesian dance traditions, including styles native to Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. The hula, however, was born in Hawaii and holds a special place at the heart of the Hawaii luau. It is said that the first hula was performed by the goddess Hi’iaka to calm her sister, the volcanic goddess Pele. Luckily, hula dancers at modern Kauai luaus are under significantly less pressure! Interestingly, the hula was later banned from the island by Queen Ka’ahumanu, the monarch partially responsible for the first recorded Hawaiian luau – so hula and luau have not always been tied together as they are at Kauai luaus today. The hula was later reintroduced to the islands by King Kalakaua, and it was at this time that the hula as we see it at today’s Hawaii luaus began to take shape. Who knew there was this much history happening behind-the-scenes at a Kauai luau after dinner show? Today dancers at Hawaii luau prepare to perform one of two styles of hula; hula kahiko, or traditional hula accompanied by drums and chanting, or hula auana, the newer style of hula accompanied by song and ukulele. So if you found yourself getting ready to perform the hula onstage at a Kauai luau, what would exactly would you be doing behind the scenes to get ready for the big show?

First, way before taking the stage at a big Hawaii luau, you would spend time studying at a hula halau, or school, under the kumu hula or instructor. Once the kumu deems you ready to dance the hula at the luau, your nightly preparations would include making sure your costume is authentic and spotlight ready for a Kauai luau audience. If you are part of a group performing the traditional hula kahiko, you will assemble the ancient instruments needed, like a gourd or a pahu – a sharkskin drum once considered sacred. Many guests at a Kauai luau look forward to seeing hula dancers in their traditional costumes, so you will want to carefully dress in your pa’u, or wrapped skirt, and different types of lei including the headpiece, or leipo’o and anklet lei or kupe’e. For the male performers getting ready backstage at a luau in Kauai, they will be putting on their malo, or loincloth, the most commonly worn garment for male dancers performing the traditional hula. If this were truly ancient Hawaii, dancers getting ready to perform at a Hawaii luau feast would pray to Laka, goddess of the hula. Most of the hula dancers performing at Kauai luaus today are dancing the hula auana, or new style. To perform the new style of hula at a Hawaii luau, most of the behind the scenes preparation is the same. For these performances dancers will also gather and tune stringed instruments like guitars and ukuleles. Women in more formal shows may dress in muumuu, or for men add a sash to the malo. In all these different behind the scenes ways, modern Kauai luaus prepare to give those attending a glimpse into Hawaii’s past. By understanding a little more of the preparation involved in re-creating ancient Hawaii for Kauai luaus of today, we learn a little bit more about what life was like in those days. Next time you are greeted with lei upon arrival at a Hawaii luau, enjoy the feeling of being transported back to the island’s past.