The Luau and The Hula

No one knows if the hula was danced at the first Hawaii luau, however, it probably was. The hula we see at the Smith luau Kauai today was such an integral part of ancient Hawaiian traditions that historians recording the first Hawaii luau probably would not have found it necessary to mention the presence of hula dancers. The hula dance and the Smiths Family luau feast are perhaps the most famous aspects of Hawaiian culture. Both have been seen in countless films and television shows, and enjoyed by numerous visitors to the island. After all, what would a Kauai vacation be without an evening spent at the Smiths Family luau in Kauai? Both the Hawaii luau and hula dance have fascinating histories which intertwine at many points in Hawaii’s past and present. The Smiths luau is also called the Smiths Tropical Paradise by many of the locals.

The origin of the hula dance seen at modern Kauai luau is shrouded in myth and mystery. Some say the first hula was performed by the goddess Laka to soothe the fiery temper of the goddess Pele, and others claim the first hula was danced by Pele herself in celebration after she escaped her sister, the goddess of the oceans. If you attend a Kauai luau after-dinner show you will probably see one or both of these stories illustrated in chant and movement. After all, that is what a hula dance is – a visual illustration of a story told in chant. Much like hula is performed in honor of visitors attending Kauai luau today, in Hawaii’s past the hula was danced in honor of chiefs and kings. The hula was a means of honoring the royalty of ancient Hawaii, emphasizing the difference between commoner and king. The Hawaii luau, on the other hand, was created to eradicate these differences and end the superstitions governing contact between chiefs and their subjects.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Smith luau Kauai is the window it provides into ancient Hawaii. In Hawaii’s distant past, all behavior was dictated by a code of conduct known as kapu, a Hawaiian word meaning forbidden. Believe it or not, many of the aspects of the Kauai luau that are commonplace today could have been punishable by death under the kapu system. King Kamehameha II threw the first Hawaii luau in 1819 to end the ai’kapu, a part of the kapu that explicitly forbade men and women from eating together and women from eating certain foods at all. When Hawaiians observed their King eating forbidden foods with his female subjects at this first Hawaii luau, the ai’kapu shattered forever. What drove Kamehameha II to change Hawaii’s in such a major way, and begin the tradition that created the Kauai luau we attend today? Many believe it was his conversion to Christianity. The ai’kapu system revolved around pleasing the gods and goddesses of ancient Hawaii, and was therefore considered heathen by western missionaries. Ironically, this same conversion to Christianity that gave birth to the beloved Hawaii luau resulted in the banning of the traditional hula dance.

Wait a minute, you say, every Kauai luau I’ve ever been to has included a hula performance! How is it that the same time period in Hawaii’s history that created the Hawaii luau put an end to the hula? Haven’t the Kauai luau and the Hawaiian hula always gone hand in hand? The answer is no. King Kamehameha’s stepmother, Queen Ka’ahumanu, officially banned the hula in 1830; about ten years after the first Hawaii luau abolished the ai’kapu. Remember the hula tradition we see at Kauai luau also had its origin in the ancient Hawaiian religion, so was considered equally heathen by the Christian missionaries who converted Kamehameha and Ka’ahumanu. The same period of change in Hawaii’s history brought about the end of one tradition and the creation of another.

However, anyone who has enjoyed a modern Kauai luau knows that the banning of the hula did not last. When the Merrie Monarch, King Kalakaua, took the throne as Hawaii’s last reigning king at the end of the eighteenth century he precipitated a renaissance of Hawaii’s ancient performing arts. He brought back the hula with a vengeance, and it was during this time the image of the hula dancer became forever linked to the Hawaii luau tradition. Prior to the time of King Kalakaua, all hulas performed at Hawaii luau were of the ancient style using only drums and chanting. Kalakaua helped develop the modern style of hula that includes songs performed on the ukulele and different costumes, like muumuu, for the dancers. The hula was reborn as an integral part of the Hawaii luau, and as anyone who has ever attended a Kauai luau can testify the have not been parted since. The history of the hula and the luau provides a glimpse into the ancient Hawaiian way of life we celebrate at modern Kauai luau. When attending a Kauai luau pay close attention to the after-dinner hula performance, and experience a piece of Hawaii’s past for yourself. When visiting Kauai, we highly recommend you visit the Smith luau Kauai also know as the Smiths Family luau Kauai.