"Hula," the Hawaiian word most known throughout the world, immediately brings to mind the image of grass skirts, coconuts, and swinging hips. But when I was visiting the islands, a Hawaiian friend suggested if I truly wanted to get past the glitz of the tourist-focused presentation to the heart and soulof the dance, I should visit Molokai, birthplace of the hula.
Her cousin was hosting a luau on Molokai, the most rural of the Hawaiian islands, to honor her son's first birthday. Relatives would dance in celebration, roast a pig in an open pit, and rejoice all day. Part of the commemoration would be a traditional hula.
The hula has had a turbulent history. When missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820 to preach and teach, they did their best to stamp out the dance, which they perceived as lewd and objectionable.
In 1830, Queen Kaahumanu converted to Christianity and forbade public hula performances. By 1896, when the Hawaiian language was banned from schools, the hula had almost disappeared.
During the time when it was out of favor, knowledgeable elders far from the mission stations still taught the hula and its oral tradition. The dancers entertained in local homes. In this way, both the dance and the language were kept alive.
Different styles and types of hula evolved from the history of the people dancing.
Before hula studios and cellophane skirts came into existence, a dancer was chosen because the proper authorities deemed her suitable and worthy.
After the selection came a long period of training. The dancers lived under the strict supervision of the kumu-hula, a dance master skilled in the arts. They adhered to rigid rules regulating diet, behavior, recreation, studies, and practice.
The school was usually a large thatched structure called the halau hula, spacious, airy, and closed on all sides to avoid the spying eyes of the villagers.
After long and arduous training, when the pupils were judged ready to be seen publicly, they were presented at a ritual called uniki, or graduation exercise. Perfection of performance was required of every dancer.
During the l920s and '30s, thanks to Hollywood - Dorothy Lamour in her sarong - and a budding tourist industry, the hula became the enduring emblem of the islands. The more traditional forms have made a comeback since the late 1960s, when native Hawaiians began rediscovering their historical culture.
The modern hula is usually danced to songs, while more traditional hulas are danced to a chant known as a mele. Contemporary performances are presented with greater emphasis on the motions than on the words, although the body movements do interpret the words' meanings to some extent.
I wondered just what type of hula was in store for me.
As I peered through the window of the island-hopping airplane, Molokai looked daunting - it has a vertical "wall" rising 2,000 feet from the crashing Pacific surf. Ancient Hawaiians named the island molo meaning barren and kai meaning sea.
When Capt. James Cook "discovered" Molokai in 1778, he found it bleak and inhospitable. Its epitaph became the Forgotten Isle.
Precisely because of this isolation, the second-largest concentration of native Hawaiians live here. The largest group lives in the island of Niihau, closed to outsiders. Until tourists saturated Oahu and Maui, few ventured to Molokai.
From the airport, Route 460 leads to Kuanakakai, the hub town on the south shore that came to the world's attention through a song played by the Benny Goodman orchestra about the "cockeyed mayor of Kuanakakai." Half of the island's 7,400 citizens live here.
Wooden buildings reminiscent of an Old West movie set front the main street. The three-block business district resembles Dodge City and has one traffic light. Six cars constitutes a traffic jam.
The story is told that on a sacred hill in Kaana, amid verdant groves, Laka, the goddess of hula, was taught to dance by her sister Kapo. Against her family's wishes, Laka journeyed from island to island, sharing the sensuous dance with all who wished to learn. Laka returned to Molokai to die and lies buried beneath the hill at Puunana.
The site of the birthday celebration was a modest home tucked in the verdant hills near Kuanakakai. Moki, a bright child just learning to toddle, was into everything. On this special day, the gathered relatives indulged and lovingly beamed at him.
Sitting on the ground, several elderly women busied themselves making leis from piles of fresh flowers. The men hovered over an open pit where a pig on a spit roasted. Children with round faces and black hair stiff as brush bristles cavorted on the lawn. Picnic tables were laden with fresh tropical fruits and native dishes.
About 4 p.m. the elders in the group assembled, sat cross-legged on the ground, and began a slow, rhythmic chant, the mele. A mele is composed to mark an important event such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption, storm, tidal wave, birth, death, war, or nostalgia for a person or place. Moki's mele had been composed by his godfather. Hula is the motion part of the performance.
Four middle-aged men began beating on sharkskin-covered drums called pahus. Venerable grandmothers, gray hair streaming down to their shoulders, bodies wrapped in tapa print sarongs, swayed gently. They were joined by girls in tiki leaf skirts, flowers encircling their ankles, wrists, and necks.
The men wore red or brown loincloths, some of them over walking shorts. Their legs were strong and muscular from many hours of surfing and climbing. A heady flower scent perfumed the air.
In contrast to the wild gyrations I'd seen in the hotel shows, these dancers kept their bodies stable, both feet planted flat on the ground, swaying into the steps with a natural controlled hip movement.
This is known as the aihaa style of hula - low to the ground, knees bent, so the dancers can, tradition says, draw their energy from the earth.
Tradition holds that life started from the navel, so the dancers moved from the middle of their bodies. They looked like flowers swayed gently by an ocean breeze. One dancer cradled her arms and rocked gracefully back and forth.
My friend explained the meaning of the movements: "The day of Moki's birth."
Another dancer gracefully raised her arms above her head, and then slowly lowered them toward her hips, fingers moving gently.
"Rain," my friend translated. "May God's blessings rain upon Moki's head all the days of his life."
The others duplicated the movements with a few variations of their own. A third girl raised her arms high and opened them in a V shape. That meant "may the kindness and greatness of the universe be one with Moki."
Another dancer started with her arms dangling on the sides of her body, slowly raised them above her head, and formed a circle, palms out. Her hips undulated slowly, her eyes turned toward heaven.
"May the sun and the moon be one always with Moki," my friend whispered in my ear.
At one point, everyone joined in with arm movements, left to right and back, representing the rolling surf. Hands cupped together represented little fish that swam over the waves.
Moki's life was honored and celebrated long after the boy fell fast asleep in his mother's arms.
Wishes for God's grace and favor, for the child's destiny to be one with the universe, for his good health and long life were expressed in the rhythmic, poetic chants of the mele and in graceful movements of the hula, the great aloha of Molokai.
• For more information, contact the Molokai Visitor Association, 1-800-6367 or P.O. Box 960 Kaunakakai, Moloka', HI 96748. Or see http://visitmolokai.com.