Central Florida’s ‘keepers of hula’ share the history behind this native Hawaiian dance

Kawehi Punahele, a hula dance teacher in Orlando, talks about culture, importance behind the dance

Hawaii is known for its beaches, volcanoes, being a major producer of pineapple, and its ancient culture that includes an iconic dance—the hula.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Hawaii is known for its beaches, volcanoes, being a major producer of pineapple, and its ancient culture that includes an iconic dance—the hula.

“King Kalakaua once said, ‘hula is the language of the Hawaiian people, therefore the heartbeat of those people,” Kawehi Punahele, a hula dance teacher from Hawaii said about the spiritual dance.

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The dance, he said, is layered with cultural significance that connects him and other native Hawaiians to their ancestors.

“Hula has a rich history of coming from the temples where men alone danced hula for the gods, and then as the centuries came through, women were accepted to dance hula, and they’re the keepers of hula also,” Punahele said.

He’s been teaching the art of hula to students like Tiana Chingmaslanka for more than 30 years in Central Florida.

“It’s like expressing who I truly am,” Chingmaslanka said.

Chingmaslanka was born and raised in Hawaii where she learned to dance hula at 8 years old.

Punahele said his goal is to showcase the true meaning of hula as opposed to what Hollywood and pop culture portrays.

“My thought is to bring hula to Central Florida the way I remember it. The way my grandmother, my mom and their grandparents remember hula,” he said.

He added it’s often frustrating to see hula misconstrued as a sexual dance.

“That is the most disturbing of all conceptions. Hula is a telling of the stories, of the land, of the ocean, of the birds, the winds, the kings, the queens. That’s what hula is for us,” he said.

For Hawaiians, hula is a sacred dance with special chants. They chant to venerate Hawaii’s first and only sovereign queen, Queen Lili’ uokalani, who assumed the throne in 1891 until a group of American business owners, backed by the U.S. military, staged a coup to overthrow her in 1893.

“When we chant, like Lili’u E Nohonani Mai, we chant to remember to recall who she was in this world. Every time we chant her chant, we know she comes, she hears and she’s with us,” Punahele said.

Punahele is preparing Chingmaslanka for an Orlando hula competition held in July. One of the dances she’ll perform will be to a song about the gardenia blossom.

“My father passed away eight years ago, and gardenia was his favorite flower, so I feel a personal connection and that I’m dancing it for him,” Chingmaslanka said.

A tradition Punahele keeps alive and hopes future generations will not let it get lost.

“Hula—the language, the movements recall to most people’s minds a time, a place, an area of peace and serenity. My goal is to bring that hula to as many people as possible so they can remember a time a place where there is peace and there is aloha and that’s who I am,” he said.

To learn more about Orlando’s hula competition held in July, click here.

About the Author:

Carolina Cardona highlights all Central Florida has to offer in her stories on News 6 at Nine. She joined News 6 in June 2018 from the Telemundo station in Philadelphia.