On the Kuleana of a Kumu Hula

Part 1: The Kumu as Foundation

The title of Kumu Hula commands great respect. At the same time, there has emerged great concern that the title has come to be used too freely, and without understanding or awareness of the kuleana–responsibility–that the title carries. The title itself has a history, and that history is not entirely crystal clear. There were kupuna in the 1960s, for example, who did not use the term kumu hula; instead they applied the designation loea to revered masters–and only to revered masters.

In the Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert, the definition of “kumu hula” does not have the all-encompassing sense of current usage. Consider how the Hawaiian Dictionary presents the definition of kumu:

1. Bottom, base, foundation, basis, title (as to land), main stalk of a tree, trunk, handle, root (in arithmetic); basic; hereditary, fundamental. Kumupali, base foot of a cliff. ‘Ike kumu, basic, fundamental knowledge. Ali’i kumu, hereditary chief. Alanui kumu, main street. ‘Auikumu, nominative case.Kumu kāhili, staff of a kāhili. Kumu nalu, source of waves, as where surfing starts. Mai ke kumu ā ka wēlau, from trunk to tip [all, entirely]. (PPN tumu.)

2. Teacher, tutor, manual, primer, model, pattern. Kumu alaka‘i, guide, model, example. Ka‘u kumu, my teacher. Kumu ho‘ohālike, pattern, example, model. Kumu hula, hula teacher. Kumu ku‘i, boxing teacher. Kumu kula, school teacher. Kumu leo mele, song book. Kumu mua, first primer.

3. Beginning, source, origin; starting point of plaiting. ho‘o.kumu To make a beginning, originate, create, commence, establish, inaugurate, initiate, institute, found, start.

4. Reason, cause, goal, justification, motive, grounds, purpose, object, why. Kumu no ka ‘oki male, grounds for divorce. Kumu ‘ole, without reason or cause. He aha ke kumu i ‘eha ai kou wāwae? What is the reason for your foot hurting?

The term kumu hula is ensconced within the second sense of kumu–a teacher who is a guide or model. Fundamentally, viewing this sense of teacher through the first definition affirms an understanding that a kumu is a foundation. The proverb “I ola nā lālā no ke kumu” underscores the vital life-giving function of a foundation to that which it generates and supports: The leaves live because of the trunk.

In hula, the kumu hula is a repository of knowledge.

  • A kumu hula is a conduit of the hula tradition.
  • A kumu hula has learned the tradition from those who came before.
  • A kumu hula continutes to learn as more information becomes available.
  • A kumu hula passes on the tradition to those who will carry it into the future.

Each kumu hula has many kuleana.

  • A kumu hula is responsible to his or her own kumu hula.
  • A kumu hula is responsible to his or her own haumana.
  • A kumu hula is responsible to the mele and hula in his or her own care.
  • A kumu hula is responsible to the community for whom hula matters.
  • A kumu hula is responsible to the stories, memories and histories related through mele and hula.
  • A kumu hula must be vigilant about what is done in the name of hula.

It is the kumu hula’s kuleana to cultivate respect in and for hula.

  • A kumu hula cultivates respect for the hula tradition.
  • A kumu hula cultivates respect for all of the items used in hula, including costumes, implements, teaching materials, the instructional space, and the performance space.
  • A kumu hula cultivates respect for those who are dedicated to respectful practice of the hula tradition.
  • A kumu hula cultivates respect for the Hawaiian people as keepers of the tradition.
  • A kumu hula cultivates respect for the Hawaiian language.
  • A kumu hula cultivates respect for the ‘āina where the hula originated.
  • A kumu hula cultivates respect for the ancestors whose efforts kept hula a living tradition.

The way that kumu hula are trained has evolved tremendously within a matter of two or three decades–a short time indeed in the centuries-old hula tradition. Yet while the specifics of the training of kumu hula have changed, the overall aspiration of kumu hula has remained constant: to honor the kuleanato safeguard and pass on knowledge about hula.

The status of “kumu hula” has always been one that is earned through the recognition of peers and the respect of haumana. The title is never bestowed by oneself onto oneself. The title should never be taken by anyone without a personal connection to a kumu hula. A kumu hula is someone who has received the blessing of his or her own kumu. Those who have been privileged to earn his or her kumu’s trust understand why that trust has been earned, why it is sacred, and why it must never be broken.

There are many many hula teachers in the present whose journeys have not included the formalized and ritualized training structures that have emerged since the 1970s renaissance of Hawaiian culture and language. There is no question that their accomplishments and contributions have entitled them to our respect. To their students, they have served as foundations. Because of their efforts, the hula tradition remained alive. And through their commitment to hula, many have, in fact, acquired and mastered the knowledges necessary to be foundations to their students in the present.

Part 2: Questions on Hula Knowledges

The thoughts assembled here offer ways of thinking through various kinds of knowledges and understandings that could be useful to kumu hula. It is not a checklist for becoming a kumu hula. The specifics of that process belong solely to those responsible for ensuring its integrity.

By putting these thoughts forward, I hope these points and questions foster deeper awareness and informed dialogue on the varied dimensions of hula, and greater respect for the knowledges that kumu hula draw on in perpetuating this venerable tradition.

These thoughts are based on conversations with many folks over the years, and I am very grateful for their patience with me as well as their mana’o. However, all responsibility for the thoughts and opinions expressed here rests with me.

1.      Do you understand why hula is meaningful to Hawaiian people?

2.      Do you understand why mele is important to hula?

3.      Do you understand why mele is meaningful to Hawaiian people?

4.      Do you know how to do research on mele?

5.      Do you know how to confirm the accuracy of lyrics, resolve discrepancies, and remedy deficiencies?

6.      Do you know how to identify the haku mele of chants and songs?

7.      Can you perform the dances you are teaching?

8.      Can you pronounce correctly the titles of the dances you perform and teach?

9.      Can you pronounce the lyrics correctly?

10. Can you explain the content of the dances you are teaching?

11. Can you translate a mele?

12. Do you know where to look for translations?

13. Do you know the differences among various Hawaiian-English dictionaries? Do you know why it matters?

14. Do you understand the concept of kaona? Do you understand its levels and its limitations?

15. Do you understand the proverb “i ka ‘ōlelo ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo ka make”?

16. Do you understand how the words of mele have power?

17. Do you know traditional hula vocabulary?

18. Do you know the names for basic feet in your teacher’s tradition? And in at least one other tradition?

19. Do you know how to analyze dance movement?

20. Do you know how to finetune students’ dancing?

21. Do you understand the concept of muscle memory in your teaching?

22. Do you know how to diagnose and correct student errors and/or bad habits?

23. Do you know what is appropriate to teach for different age groups?

24. Do you know how to explain what the hula is to your audiences?

25. Do you know how to explain what the hula is to potential clients?

26. Every hula performer is a cultural ambassador. Do you know how to respond when strangers laugh and do “air wave” hand motions?

27. Do you know how to prepare your students to respond when strangers laugh and do ‘air wave” hand motions?

28. Can you play ‘ukulele?

29. Can you operate a CD player?

30. Can you operate an iPod?

31. Do you know how to select music for hula?

32. Do you know where to look for music?

33. Do you know how to speak into a microphone effectively?

34. Do you know how to give instructions to musicians?

35. Do you understand our moral imperative to support Hawaiian music recording artists by recommending that your students purchase CDs instead of circulate copies–thereby depriving the artists of fair compensation for their labor?

36. Can you pronounce the names of the hula implements correctly?

37. Do you know the conventions of ki‘ipā for the various implements?

38. Can you perform or teach a hula ‘auana using single or double pū‘ili?

39. Can you perform or teach a hula ‘auana using single or double ‘ulī‘ulī?

40. Can you perform or teach a hula ‘auana using ipu heke ‘ole?

41. Do you know how to care for hula implements?

42. Do you know how to select appropriate lei for dancers?

43. Do you know how to make lei?

44. Do you know how to care properly for lei?

45. Do you know how to select plant materials for lei?

46. Do you know how to gather plant materials for leimaking in an environmentally sensitive way?

47. Do you know how to combine plant materials in lei?

48. Do you know how to select costumes?

49. Do you know how to make costumes?

50. Do you understand color significance in costumes and lei?

51. Do you know how to secure costumes and lei on dancers?

52. Do you know names of flowers for each island?

53. Do you understand how to use costume styles to enhance dancers’ bodies?

54. Do you understand how to use costume styles to enhance the dance movements?

55. Do you know how to care properly for costumes?

56. Can you oli?

57. Can you pa‘i an ipu?

58. Do you know the names of the rhythms played by the ho‘opa‘a?

59. Do you know which rhythms are traditional to ipu?

60. Can you pa‘i a pahu?

61. Do you know which rhythms are traditional to pahu?

62. Do you know why the rhythms for ipu and pahu are not interchangeable?

63. Do you know when a mele should be accompanied by one and not the other?

64. Do you know the protocols surrounding the use and placement of ipu heke?

65. Do you know the protocols surrounding the use and placement of the dancer’s implements?

66. Can you perform or teach a hula noho using kuhi lima?

67. Can you perform or teach a hula noho using pa‘i umauma?

68. Can you perform or teach a hula noho using ‘ili‘ili?

69. Can you perform or teach a hula noho using kāla’au?

70. Can you perform or teach a hula noho using pū‘ili?

71. Can you perform or teach a hula noho using ‘ulī‘ulī?

72. Can you perform or teach a hula noho using ipu?

73. Do you know how to create new hula ‘auana?

74. Do you know how to create new hula kahiko?

75. Do you know how to choreograph using the hula implements?

76. Do you know how to create new implement rhythms? Do you understand when it is appropriate to do so?

77. Do you know how to create new hula steps? Do you understand when it is appropriate to do so?

78. Do you know vocabulary for types of mele?

79. Do you understand why certain types of mele are more appropriate for hula than others?

80. Do you understand why certain types of mele are not appropriate for hula?

81. Do you understand the differences among different styles of oli?

82. Do you understand which styles of oli are appropriate with which kinds of mele?

83. Do you understand which styles of oli are appropriate in which kinds of situations?

84. Do you know the protocols for ordering chants and hula within a traditional hula program?

85. Do you know names of plants for the kuahu hula?

86. Do you understand the role of pule in your teaching and performing endeavors?

87. Do you know how to address Laka?

88. Do you know how to address Kapōʹulakīnaʹu?

89. Do you understand why sacred dances are surrounded by kapu?

90. Do you understand why some dances and mele are more sacred than others?

91. Do you know how to focus your students’ attention?

92. Do you know how to treat your own kumu with respect?

93. Do you know the sources of the hula and chants you learned from your kumu?

94. Do you know your kumu’s hula genealogy?

95. Do you know who are historically significant sources in hula lineages other than your own?

96. Do you know how to treat your fellow kumu hula colleagues with respect?

97. Do you know how to treat other people’s kumu with respect?

98. Do you know how to treat haumana of other kumu hula with respect?

99. Do you earn the respect of your haumana instead of expect it?

100.         Do you earn the trust of your haumana instead of expect it?

101.         Do you know how to nurture passion for hula in your haumana?

102.                     Do you know how to nurture haumana to become responsible for their hula knowledge, skills, implements, and costumes?

103.         Do you know how to recognize and cultivate a haumana’s passion when s/he demonstrates it?

104.         Do you know how to assess whether a student is adequately prepared to be trusted with increased responsibility?

105.         Do you know how to protect your students from negative energy?

106.         Do you know how to protect your reputation?

107.         Do you understand why your kumu taught you the way s/he did?

108.         Do you understand why knowledge is sometimes withheld from students?

109.         Do you know the proverb “‘A‘ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho‘okahi”?

110.         Do you live by it?

111.         Do you know how to offer evaluation and criticism constructively?

112.         Do you understand your kuleana to speak up when something is not pono?

113.         Do you understand when it is not appropriate to speak up when you see something you think may not be in the best interest of hula?

114.         Do you understand your kuleana to maintain the skills and knowledge you have received from your kumu?

115.         Do you understand why some dances must be maintained exactly in the style in which it came to you?

116.         Do you understand what is hewa about taking an existing choreography and changing parts of it?

117.         Do you strive for new knowledge beyond what you received from your kumu?

118.         Do you understand your kuleana to pass on the skills and knowledge you have received so that it does not end with you?

119.         Do you empower your students to exceed your own knowledge and capabilities?

120.         Do you understand your kuleana to impart skills and knowledge only when haumana are ready to receive it?

121.         Do you understand your kuleana to share your skills and knowledge with your community?

122.         Do you understand your kuleana to continue to learn about mele and hula on your journey through life?

123.         Do you understand the kuleana to contribute to the hula tradition?

124.         Do you know vocabulary for Hawaiian values?

125.         Do you live by them?

126.         What is your motivation for being or becoming a kumu hula?

127.         A kumu is a foundation. Do you possess sufficient knowledge and passion to be a foundation in hula for your students?

Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman
December 2010, ver. 6


11 Responses to On the Kuleana of a Kumu Hula

  1. Pingback: New Links Pages and Essays | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure

  2. Kuuipo Kumukahi says:

    mahalo nui e Ku’uleialoha – this raises more discussion!
    HULA: Culture or Commercial ?

  3. Sissy Kaio says:

    Mahalo Aunty Amy. You always enlighten and make us think about our kuleana and how it affects community now and for the future and how to also honor our past. I have been following your series and loving it. Mahalo nui for the continued insight.

  4. Pingback: on my mind . . . kuleana ! | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure

  5. Outstanding, and should be required reading, mahalo Amy.

  6. Pingback: How to choose a good hula instructor or kumu hula « ilovehula

  7. Leialoha Amina says:

    Ano’ai ke aloha,
    These are 127 excellent and thought provoking questions for all hula practitioners as well as hula enthusiasts. Including myself! May I have your permission to cite this article as a link and/or reference either on a future blog post, article, lectures, seminars, etc.?

    • amykstillman says:

      ‘ano ‘ai kāua! Please feel free to cite, link, and even reproduce. All that is requested is credit to the source, which is this website. Some of the questions may seem superficial, but they all hopefully inspire folks to think more deeply about how hula is being presented–to audiences, but also to haumana, and to fellow colleagues.

  8. Faye Yates says:

    Mahalo nui no keia mau ‘olelo naauao o ka hula. Can a person be called a “kumu Hula” who only teaches hula ‘auana? Who/how is a person designated as a kumu hula? Does he/she have to ‘uniki in both kahiko & ‘auana to be “kumu Hula”? Mahalo

    • amykstillman says:

      Hi Faye: Different people are going to answer your questions differently, depending on what they have been taught AND what they have come to think through for themselves. I always like to point out that the term “kumu” has multiple meanings. While there is great debate in the hula community over how the term “kumu hula” is bestowed, there is another more basic sense of “kumu” as a source or wellspring, which is what a teacher is to students for whom the teacher is a knowledgable instructor. That is entirely separable from debates over the title of “KUMU HULA” and how it is attained. Good luck on your journey!!

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