HILO (HawaiiNewsNow) - "I would suspect hula began when the first Hawaiian or the first Polynesian set foot on this island, raised his hands and said, 'what a great place this is!' and look at this. There's the trees over there. There's the moon. Isn't this absolutely wonderful?" Dr. Ishmael Stagner II said.
No one knows exactly when it started. But ancient Hawaiians documented their stories and history in song and movement. There are legends that the goddess Pele had her sister Hi'iaka dance for her to appease her fiery wrath creating the first hula.
Early dances were mostly for religious purposes or preparation for war. But 2 things happened around 1819 -- the death of Kamehameha Nui Akea and the arrival of the missionaries. The Christian newcomers destroyed heiau and disgraced the kahuna forcing hula underground.
"They're still doing hula. You can find hula taking place, but it's isolated and it's remote," Stagner said.
Then in 1874 there's a resurgence under King Kalakaua. The Merrie Monarch.
"He does it as part of his coronation. He brings the best dancers and the best chanters and the chanters are extremely important because they're the history of the country in oral form which existed long before we codified the language in 1823. So as such now you're bringing back a history of the people. They're very proud," Stagner said.
Kalakaua instituted a number of changes. He encouraged the use of instruments like the bass, guitar and ukulele during performances and sanctioned the hula as a legitimate part of native Hawaiian identity.
"There are so many facets to a culture, but this particular part of that culture, the king, our head of state, his majesty identifies it to be the heartbeat of his people. And basically the heartbeat is what keeps us going as a race," Cy Bridges said.
Then another dark era in Hawaiian history -- the overthrow in 1893.
"As a result now the language, is decided, the mother tongue is going to be English. As a result, people who speak Hawaiian in public schools for instance like my mom are going to be caned. So they're not going to speak Hawaiian any more," Stagner said.
"Without the words, you have no hula. You have nothing to describe with your hand, body and facial expression. That's where my love got started in the beats and the words," Bridges said.
The language skips over a whole generation and during a time when hula's popularity starts to pick up. World War I and eventually World War II brought a huge military presence to the islands. During their downtime, those soldiers and sailors needed to be entertained.
"You're gonna entertain them. How're you gonna entertain them? What did they do when Cooke wanted his people entertained? They brought out the hula dancers," Stagner said.
Of course some not all of the hula at this time is watered-down commercial dance put on by people trying to capitalize on the trend. But there are true hula masters that remain and there are important changes yet ahead before the renaissance period in the 1960's.