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Languages of the world : Hula, the power of a dance

1897, the annexation of the Hawaiian islands by the United States of America becomes one of too many stories of colonialism. The rich Polynesian culture of the territory will forever be impacted by the Western invasion, the consequences being particularly devastating for the local language, Ōlelo Hawaiʻi. Once the main language, its banning from schools and all official languages will reduce it to a dialect  spoken by less than 1% of the population. 150 years after the occupation, and with their language at the brink of extinction, Hawaiians decide to strike back: in the 1970s, the Hawaiian Renaissance was born, a movement envisioned to protect the traditional culture and, namely, the centennial practice under the name of «Hula».

The Hula, a traditional dance brought by Polynesians when settling in the islands, is an art that links the knowledge of generations with the transmission of the Hawaiian language. In the dark days of Ōlelo, Hula remained the thin thread that attached the language and culture of the islands’ ancestors to the Hawaiian people, fighting against the tragic fate of many colonized territories. Here, it is important to understand that the Hula ritual contains a special connection between movement and communication. As some Hula masters argue, the essence of the practice is not in the dance itself, but rather in the language. In this vein, the centrality of Hula to Hawaiian identity lies not only in the system of communication it provides, but also in the messages it transmits. Hula songs accumulate centuries worth of information on the land: its history, its sacred places, its secrets.

Darlene Ahuna - Ke Anuenue


It is also interesting to see how Hula has adapted to the changes in Hawaiian demographics over the past 200 years. Before the American occupation of the islands, the practice consisted of a very rich chant accompanied by very subtle movements, narration being its central element of the ritual. But once English replaced Hawaiian in the public domain and the population became increasingly foreign, the dancing elements took greater importance, Hula practitioners aiming for a certain level of communication with those who do not speak the language. Nowadays, conveying a message and spreading the meaning of the song, inspired by the unique Hawaiian culture, remains the ultimate goal of this traditional dance.

Kevin Kealoha - Hilo Hanakahi


Because of the efforts of the native population, and the role of Hula as the cornerstone of Hawaiian culture, the number of Ōlelo speakers is now at a healthy 24,000, which is more than anyone could have imagined 30 years ago. Hawaiian culture and language are now studied, spread and celebrated both within the islands and overseas. The Hula, with its mesmerizing dancers and powerful messages, has become the international symbol of a peaceful and spiritual practice that has managed to protect the essence of Hawaiian heritage.


This article is the result of a collaborative project between #AuxSons and Alejandro Abbud Torres Torija, professor at Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims, and regular contributor to #AuxSons. As part of the course “Languages of the world”, international students from Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims looked at the links between music from the four corners of the world and sociopolitical issues.


The authors : 

Silvia Mosquera Lago is a 4th year student of a Double Degree in Sociology, International Relations and Cooperation Development in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Currently based in Reims, France, she is passionate about sociolinguistics, sports sociology and education.


Maelle Delamare is a second year student in the Sciences Po Paris’ Bachelor of Arts. Studying at the Reims campus, she chose to specialize in Political Humanities to pursue her interest in history and philosophy. Passionate about discovering new cultures and learning languages, international affairs are a passion of hers as well.

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