How Hawaiian Culture Thrives through the Timeless Poetry of Hula

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Editor’s note: This episode was filmed under strict guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic. Safety parameters were followed to protect the health of the dancers and video production team.

If Cities Could Dance is KQED Arts' award-winning video series featuring dancers across the country who represent their city's signature moves.

When she was nine years old, Snowbird Puananiopaokalani Bento took the bus from downtown Honolulu to Plumeria Square in Kaimuki for hula class every Saturday morning. She’d pack her hula bag the night before and gladly sacrifice Saturday morning cartoons for an hour of dance with her first kumu hula, or hula instructor, Leimomi Ho. She never skipped a lesson.

“You know when you're a kid and you're in school, you know the subjects that really just pique your interest and you could do it all day long? Like a great book and you don't want to put it down, you end up reading like crazy for two days straight? That was hula for me,” says Bento, who is now a kumu hula herself. She is teaching the next generation of dancers through her hālau hula (hula school) Ka Pā Hula O Ka Lei Lehua.

Four hula dancers in traditional attire pose in front of a colorful mural.
From left to right: Pilialoha Kamakea‐Young, Snowbird Bento, Diane Leinani Paloma, and Kilinoe Kimura in front of a mural at SALT at Kaka'ako in Honolulu, HI. (Keli'i Grace)

For many Native Hawaiian practitioners like Bento, hula is far from just an extracurricular activity. Its origins are deeply spiritual and rooted in Hawai‘i’s creation stories and the history of Bento’s kūpuna (ancestors) before her. Driven by the mele (poetry), hula marries movement with spoken word to express stories about specific deities, people, places and events.

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Modern styles of hula influenced by Western music and instrumentation may come to mind when people think of Honolulu, home to tourism hotspot Waikīkī, but there are also sacred dances that have been passed down through centuries of kumu hula like Bento who train to master the language, choreography and protocols. “I knew I could commit myself to it for my lifetime,” Bento says of hula. “It wasn't just a trending thing for me.”


Born in 1975 in Pauoa Valley to a musical family, Bento grew up singing with her grandparents and parents in church and at home, with autoharp and ukulele constantly in her ear as they sang together after dinner on Sundays. Rhythms, beats and vocals came naturally to her.

But she also grew up during what is called the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” when many Native Hawaiian activists and leaders fought for the reinstitution of Hawaiian cultural values and practices. The movement countered a long history of Christian missionary influence and the United States’ forced takeover of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, which led to Hawai‘i’s annexation as a territory and its eventual statehood. Starting in the 1960s, their efforts led to the revival of hula and the 1971 establishment of the Merrie Monarch Festival as a hula competition; the end of U.S. military test bombing on the island of Kaho‘olawe after protests in 1973; and the reinstitution of Hawaiian as an official language in 1978.

“I am a direct result of that generation,” says Bento. “My mom is almost full Hawaiian. But she faced some ridicule and hardship for dancing hula. She was told, ‘You cannot dance hula and go to church at the same time.’”

While attending Kamehameha Schools in this changed cultural landscape, Bento perfected her ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language), and through diligent study became a rising hula star under Kumu Hula Holoua Stender. In 2001, Stender selected her to compete as Miss Aloha Hula at the Merrie Monarch Festival, the most renowned hula event in the world. To this day, people still approach Bento to gush about her electric performance. For a time, Bento even took over her kumu’s hālau until eventually establishing her own in 2004, which came with a great responsibility to pass on his teachings.

Native Hawaiian woman is sitting down while playing a large wooden drum in front of the steps of Iolani Palace in Honolulu. HI.
Kumu hula, or hula instructor, Snowbird Bento posing with her pahu (drum) in front of the steps of the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, HI. (Keli'i Grace)

Diane Leinani Paloma, one of Bento’s students, danced alongside Bento in high school and watched her blossom into a kumu hula. “I would just describe Snow as the modern‐day Renaissance mana wahine—this bad ass, super‐charged woman—who knows her culture and how to cultivate culture in others,” she says.

Paloma has been dancing for over 35 years, but is now studying under Bento to become a ho‘opa‘a (chanter and musical accompanist to the dancers) through a process called 'ūniki—rigorous training which culminates in a ceremony that tests the student’s knowledge of hula traditions. “Generally, the definition of 'ūniki means to bind or to tie,” Bento says, “so an ‘'ūniki ceremony basically is to bind or to tie the knowledge of your teachers to you.”

Before one can train to become a ho’opa’a, they must first 'ūniki as an ‘ōlapa, or skilled dancer. Only when both levels are completed can you be considered for training as a kumu hula. Bento went through the 'ūniki process under her Kumu Hula Holoua Stender, who 'ūniki‐ed under Keli’i Tau‘a. Tau‘a 'ūniki-ed under Maiki Aiu Lake, who 'ūniki-ed under Lokalia Montgomery—both very prominent figures in modern-day hula lineages who connect to a continuum of hula that spans centuries.

Pilialoha Kamakea‐Young and Kilinoe Kimura are among the current cohort Bento is training to become ‘ōlapa. If it is safe to gather, their 'ūniki ceremony will be held later this fall. “They represent to me the hope of where hula can continue to go and grow,” Bento says. Kamakea‐Young is a Hawaiian language teacher at Mid-Pacific Institute, and Kimura is a soon‐to‐be graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, with a major in Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language. In stark contrast to previous generations, both are fluent in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i.

In addition to her precise teaching of technical movement of the hands and feet, Bento cultivates a long view of hula that comes with a serious commitment to its continuance. “I'm putting those stories right into the hands of the Pilis and the Kilis of the group,” she says. “I’m saying to them, ‘This body of work will become yours. And you will train for the rest of your life to be able to share it with the next generations.’”

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Watch Kumu Snowbird Bento and members of her hālau dance in Honolulu at Pu’u ‘Ualaka’a State Park, SALT at Our Kaka’ako, and the historic Iolani Palace, the home of Hawai‘i's last reigning monarchs. — Article by Lauren Kawana