Hilo, Hawaii: How the hula became a grass-skirted hip swaying dance

The air swells with an hypnotic chant as the women sway, their backs to the ocean and their arms, wrists and fingers curling and unfurling slowly with a mesmerising grace.

Their voices grow louder as the heart-wrenching story they're telling of love, loss and longing nears its climax. A few of the dancers look absolutely lost in their own world, and I can see tears in the eyes of some of the audience. And then, suddenly, it stops.

There's a moment of absolute silence, before deafening applause. But this isn't just a cultural oddity on show for tourists. Traditional Hawaiian hula dance, or Hula Kahiko, is an intensely powerful connection with times long past. The more modern version, high-intensity, sexually charged, grass-skirted hip sway – pop video twerkers, eat your hearts out – is also a regular sight.

"The hula really defines who we are as a people," says Meleana Ulrich-Manuel, the instructor of this group of dancers. "It's our culture and our link with the past. It's now undergoing a massive revival, which is wonderful to see."

We're where the ancient ritual of hula was thought to have begun thousands of years ago, in Hilo on the eastern side of Hawaii's Big Island, where the world's biggest hula celebration, the Merrie Monarch Festival, is held every year.

The event is named after Hawaii's last king, King David Kalakaua, who, during his reign in the late 19th century, restored Hawaii's traditional culture, including hula, after decades of suppression by Christian missionaries who condemned it as heathen.

"Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people," he famously declared.

Fittingly, the hotel on that exact site, the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo has rebranded itself as the home of hula following a  renovation in 2018. It's decorated throughout with beautiful monochrome photographs of hula dancers, has a huge mural in the restaurant – called Hula Hulas – and a life-size bronze statue of a hula dancer looking out over the bay from the lobby. And there are hula dancers performing every Monday evening and soon to be more days. 

"Obviously, when people come to Hawaii, they think of sunshine, palm trees, beaches, ocean … and hula," says Ed Gunderson general manager of the Grand Naniloa, a DoubleTree by Hilton.


"For us, it's an ingrained part of our culture, and now it's bigger than ever. The hula festival here is the Superbowl of hula. There are over 150,000 people in Hawaii who are active participants in dance groups and two million more in Japan.

"It translates our culture in the form of dance and sound, and once people see how beautiful it can be, it's hard not to fall in love with it."

Hula has always been the vehicle for expressing the stories and religious beliefs of the Hawaiian people, committing them to memory and passing them from generation to generation in the absence of a formal written language.

Fine art photographer Kim Taylor Reece has studied the Hula Kahiko for 40 years, and boosted its popular resurgence with books of gorgeous photographs of dancers, exhibitions throughout the world and now he has the Grand Naniloa as his showcase.

"A lot of people, including many of the dancers, didn't really appreciate it until they saw my images," says Taylor Reece, who hopes to exhibit next in Australia. "But when they saw how beautiful it looked, it made them feel much more positive about themselves and many more started to participate, seeing it as a contribution to their culture and identity.

"I really love the energy and strength and dynamism and beauty of the ancient hula, which is performed to a chant or drums, and the commitment of the dancers. It captures the spirit of aloha and taking care of people and sharing with community."


Sue Williams was a guest of Grand Naniloa Hilo, Hawaii Tourism and Hawaiian Airlines' inter-island flights.





Qantas, Hawaiian Airlines, Jetstar and Virgin all fly non-stop to Honolulu from Sydney.


Grand Naniloa Hilo has views of Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea. See grandnaniloahilo.com