There’s a rule to watching hula: Pay attention to the dancer’s hands to understand the story.
But Kumu Hula `Iwalani Christian said the hands alone won't tell you everything you need to know: Clothing is part of the story, too.
What dancers wear — the clothes, the adornments, the colors — is symbolic and helps tell stories. For example, yellow is the color of the gods.
“You would not wear yellow clothes when you were dancing about the farmer,” said Christian, who leads Na Lei ‘O Manu`akepa, a hula school in Seattle.
And all those Hollywood movies that show women in grass skirts and lei? Christian said they’re not part of traditional hula.
Christian said there are several items that are universal in hula:
Kapa: A fabric made of bark. The cloth is wrapped around the body and taken over the shoulder. It comes comes down to the knees or a little longer. Christian said it resembles a sarong, although it's more elaborate.
Pa`u: A skirt worn around the waist, gathered and tied with a cord.
Mu`umu`u: Another style of dress, and more modern compared to the traditional kapa.
Malo: Worn by men like a loin cloth. Men also wear pa`u but it is tied differently, often with big knots.
Leaves, ferns, seeds, nuts and shells are often used for adornments. Plants are important adornments in general.
Christian said most halau (or hula schools) have an altar dedicated to Laka, a Hawaiian deity, and the altar is adorned with plants that are appropriate to Laka. When a hula dancer prepares for a presentation, they wear those leaves and plants so Laka inspires them and resides in them.
“The dancer becomes the altar,” Christian said.