Prince Lot Hula Festival is a grass skirt-shaking good time

This summer, Hawaii’s will bring a fascinating dose of culture and fun to any U.S. vacation. On July 16, hula dancers from across the islands will come together for a day of traditional dancing at Oahu’s Moanalua Gardens for Hawaii’s oldest and largest noncompetitive hula show. Visitors who decide to attend this annual festival will have the chance to participate in Hawaiian arts, crafts and games. However, there will also be plenty of time to sit back and relax as the islands’ best dancers show off a tradition that has shaped their culture.

Ancient Hawaiians used hula dancing to honor the volcano goddess, Pele. Originally, while the dance was being performed, men would sing poetic chants called Mele as other locals played music on sharkskin drums, rattles and gourds. However, the people who danced what was then called “Ha’a” did not wear grass skirts like they do today. Usually the women wore wrapped skirts while the men wore loincloths.

Although hula seems innocent enough today, when Christian missionaries arrived on the islands in 1820 they banned it, calling it a pagan ritual. However, when King Kamehameha II insisted on free religion in the 1830s, hula was once again allowed on the islands, although dancers had to wear high-neck gowns and long sleeves so they would not offend Christians. Then, under the reign of King David Kalakaua, hula was spruced up with additional costumes, music and songs. It became part of every Hawaiian festival and a beloved dance among the people. By the mid-20th century, Hollywood and tourism took the hula to a whole new level, making it one of the the most famous elements of the Hawaiian islands.

When visitors arrive at the 35th Annual Prince Lot Hula Festival this summer, they can expect to see performances by more than 22 different hālau, or groups, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. These dances are divided into two categories: hula kāhiko, an ancient version of hula and chants, and ’auana, or modern hula shows. All dancers will perform on hula mounds in the lush botanical forest of Moanalua Gardens. As chairs are not provided, most guests bring beach blankets or beach chairs in order to watch some of Hawaii’s best dancers.