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In the mist of legends, the ties between the island of Moloka'i and Hawai'i's ancient dance are deep and binding.

By Tracey Minkin

It begins, says the chant, on Moloka'i. Here, in a place called Kā'ana on the heights of Mauna Loa, lived a woman named La'ila'i. Arriving in the 6th century, the Polynesian brought a potent form of storytelling from her home island, one that twined chanting and dance like vines. Her art—the hula—passed through five generations of her family.

Laka, a member of that fifth generation, was inspired to spread the art beyond her island home. Around 1100 A.D. she set out on her own voyage, teaching hula to the people of every island in the archipelago. She returned home finally, and is buried in Kā'ana.

Courtesy of Philip Spalding/Ka Hula Piko

More than nine centuries later, three young women dance a hula that tells Laka's story on those same sacred grounds. As the kumu hula—their leader, Elsie Ryder—chants and drums, the dancers speak with their bodies: bare feet that ply the grass, legs that crouch low and rise like the swell of a wave, knees that pull together in a rhythmic counterpoint beneath their plain skirts, bare arms that stretch up to skies and mountaintops, and hands that hold detail in their precise movements. As they step and gesture, their eyes gaze out to the horizon, sweep the ancestral lands of their patron saint, and look back to a past they summon today.

They dance the story of the birth of hula.

"The hula linked the imagination with the islands' legendary past," writes Jerry Hopkins in his history, The Hula. Spawned in legends that vary from island to island, the hula captured its own early history through its chants—oli—that evoke epic poetry in their sweep and length. (Chanted by memory, oli can run hundreds of lines and can take hours to complete.)

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Those early Hawaiian stories tell of dynasties, wars, and love. But with the invasion of Western explorers beginning with British sea captain James Cook in 1778 (a milestone known as "contact"), the hula begins a long chapter of being judged and manipulated by outsiders. The centuries following Western contact fill with waves of misunderstanding, suppression, commercialization, and debasement at the hands of explorers, missionaries, big business, and Hollywood. Even today, the hula—along with other elements of Hawaiian culture—remains besieged by romanticism and ignorance.

In many ways hula has adapted to these relentless forces, and its modern iteration, hula ‘auana, is a beautiful, tourist-pleasing entertainment. But hula kahiko, the ancient hula maintaining its many sacred rules, has also endured—slipping away from 19th-century Calvinists' missionary glare and into rural homes, passing down quietly through generations, and enjoying a renaissance since the 1970s among Hawaiians reclaiming their cultural practices.

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"It's not about a show," says Danielle Gantz, one of the trio who has danced Laka's story on the bluffs in a reverent opening to Moloka'i Ka Hula Piko, an annual festival that celebrates traditional hula on this quietest of Hawaiian islands. "We're not trying to move our hips and swing our long hair," she says. "It's about a story we are trying to tell. It's about the history of the hula."

The women connect to that history through their hula hālau—schools of hula that have evolved over centuries from complex social orders. Their original kumu hula was also the founder of this festival that focuses on Moloka'i as the piko—the navel, or center—of the form, and its birthplace.

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The story has the glow of legend. In the 1970s, an O'ahu teenager named John Ka'imikaua happened upon a 92-year-old woman who spied the inheritor of her wisdom. They spoke, and Ka'imikaua trained with her for three years. He learned and retained her chants of hula and Moloka'i, and in 1977 founded his own hālau, Haālau Hula O Kukunaokalā, dedicated to hula kahiko. In 1991, he created the festival to honor Moloka'i as the home of hula.

The deeply charismatic Ka'imikaua died in 2006 before his 48th birthday, and the gaping hole still resonates. "His knowledge was infinite," says Madonna Dizon, Danielle's grandmother, who still dances with the hālau. "There was so much more to learn from him," says Elsie Ryder, who studied with Ka'imikaua since her own teen years and has assumed the mantle of guiding the hālau, teaching, and chanting with several other longtime members. "We stay together, we do it together," she says.

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And so every year, members of hālau from Hawai'i, mainland America, and foreign countries fly to tiny Moloka'i to share their hula at a small public park. But it's the opening ceremony high on the bluffs of Mauna Loa that resonates most. Dancers and guests hike out to Laka's sacred place, make offerings at shrines, hear stories. In hushed stillness, the crowd watches the young women dance Laka's story to Ryder's chant.

And Gantz does her best to honor—to inhabit—that legacy. John Ka'imikaua coached his students to dance with the fluidity of water and the spark of fire. Through hundreds of hours of exacting practice, each hula dancer strives for this seamless connection to his or her story, and to the natural world that informs it. "You can learn the dance," says Gantz, "but you have to perfect it." It's in this perfection, she's learned, that the dancer becomes her story.

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Ryder knows this challenge well. "It takes a lot of love, dedication, and commitment to master it," she says. But when you do?

"You become your ancestors," she says. "You become the wind."

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Moloka'i Ka Hula Piko occurs in early summer every year on the island, and is a fitting lens through which to view this extraordinary place that has retained much of its authentic culture. For more information on the festival (and hula), go to kahulapiko.com.