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Hula Dance Terms and Steps

Know the Lingo!

Once you have learned the terms for the hula dance steps and movements, you will not only have a good foundation for beginning to learn the hula dance but you will have a grasp of some Hawaiian words and their pronunciation.

When you say these words out loud or hear them spoken, you will know that it is a lovely language. It is astounding to know that the original "Polynesian/Hawaiian" language was banned for several decades. It could not be spoken in schools and it was replaced by English as the official state language. In the 1970's, when a revival of traditional Hawaiian culture came into being, the language began to be slowly reintegrated. It began to once again be spoken and taught.

In the 19th century, there were 500,000 speakers of the old Hawaiian language. There are approximately 9,000 speakers of the Hawaiian language today. Nine percent of people who speak the language are native Hawaiians and these are mostly in the elderly population.

Efforts to revive the language are making a slow but steady increase in its use. It is now being taught and spoken in several public schools in Hawaii.

The Hula was originally called the Ha`a. It was not until the mid nineteenth century that it was given the name of "Hula". "Ha`a" is defined in the dictionary as a dance with bent knees. Many of the steps contain "Ha`a" within their name. Some of the words defined for you are not actual steps, but movements within the various Hula steps.  

Following is an alphabetical list of Ha`a or "Hula" terms that have been passed down through the generations. Pronunciation is given wherever possible.

After, there are a list of terms and steps that you will not find in the dictionary and a few words about hula chants.

"Hula Speak"

`Ai - style or type of dance.

`Ai `ami (ai' ah mee) - Hula with little foot movement, dancing with the hips rotating in a circular motion.

`Ai ha`a (ai'hah ah) - Hula step done with bended knees. This step is done with chanting and the movements are done with emphasis.

`Ai kawele (ai` kah veh leh), also referred to as "`ami poepoe" - Hula step where one foot moves forward in a half circle and off to the side without ever touching the ground. This is done in combination with other steps (see holo or `uwehe).

`Ami (ah mee) - hip rotations

`Ami`ami (ah' mee ah' mee) - To jerk the hips as if on hinges. Done in what is considered a vulgar manner. Simulates sexual intercourse.

`Ami honua (ah'mee hoh noo' (w)ah) - Rapidly rotating of the hips in hula. "honua" refers to the world or the earth.

'Ami kahela (ah'mee KAH' heh lah) - To rotate the hips with weight on the right hip and foot. The left heel is lifted slightly off the ground. The movement is then reversed with the weight on the left side.
"kahela" means to spread out.

`Ami kuku (ah'mee KOO' Koo') - Similar to `ami kahela but the movements are smaller and faster and done in three groups. These are sometimes combined with two slower kahele rotations.
"kuku" is a beat of three on a pad and a slap added on the third rise.

`Ami ku`upau (ah' mee koo oo pau') - An uninhibited hip movement with fast hip rotations. Literal meaning: uninhibited revolving hips.

`Ami `oniu (ah' mee OH' niu) - Rotating the hips in a firgure 8, shifting weight from right hip to left.
`oniu means "spinning"

`Ami `opu (ah' mee OH' POO') - Thrusting the abdominals forward. This is not considered to be in good taste.
`opu means "stomach"

`Aui - Hula step. The hula dancer will turn to the side and point the foot out and bring it back several times. The body tips forward, the lowered hand points at the toes of the moving foot and the other hand is raised the opposite way.

Hela - Hula step. Knees are bent, weight place on one hip while the opposite leg and foot stretches out to form a 45 degree angle from the body.

Holo - This step is much like the kaholo but the feet do not have to touch. A running side-step.

Hue - Hip rotations done in perfect timing to the beat of the drum. These range from slow to very fast.

Here's a video that deomonstrates many of the hula steps mentioned on this page in a live hula dancing event...

Ka`apuni - A hula spin referred to as "around the island". The dancer twirls around in a circle on the ball of one foot while the other foot takes steps to complete the steps.

Kahele - `ami rotations.

Kaholo - The "vamp" step. One foot steps off the the side and the other follows, this is repeated for two steps to one side. Done to the count of 4, with each movement counting as 1 (foot out) 2 (other follows) 3 (foot out) 4 (other follows).  

Kawelu, Kalakaua - Performed at the beginning of the dance for King Kalakaua. The first foot taps with the heel keeping the toes in one place while the other foot steps forward and backwards for two or more repetitions. The feet are reversed and the step is repeated.

Kelamoku - This hula step begins with one foot swinging and alternating ball to heel while the other foot is pointed to the front and then the back four times. The feet are reversed and step repeated in the same manner. While performing this dance, the knees are bent, the arms are held out and bent with the hands held up with fingers snapping and body swaying in time to the music.

Ki`i, Waewae Ki`i - Right foot points to 3 o'clock, then 1 o'clock, then back to position with the left foot. Then the left foot points to 9 o'clock, then 11 o'clock and returns to position with the right foot. The step is said to have been done on Maui by Pele and Hopoe.

Kupe (koo' peh)- Feet stay in standing position, knees bend, body swings low to the right, left, then up. Repeated 3 times.
kupe means "to stumble"

Lele (leh' leh) - Stepping forward, lifting the rear heel on every step, heel turns inward slightly. May be done backwards.
lele means to fly, skip or leap.

`0 (OH') - Hip thrusts out in an "O" motion. This is much like the kawelu but the foot is pivoted as it turns in the opposite direction.
`0 means to thrust

Ue, Uwe (oo' (w)eh) - The drummer changes beat and the dancer extends the right foot to the front with pointed toes. Both arms are brought in front of chest, the hands are crossed and the fingers point up - The left hand remains in the upward position while the right arm and foot is swung in a backward arc. It ends with the toes of the right foot pointing to the back. The right arm and foot come forward again and the move is continued with the left limbs. Then, three steps forward, turn body to the right. In last step, the left hand is forward while the right foot and arm are back.
ue means to jerk, twist, turn, or pull

`Ulili (OO' lee lee) - similar to the `uwehe (following), except one heels is raised at a time instead of two.
`ulili refers to a whistle, tattle bird, or an instrument made from a gourd that makes a whirring sound.

`Uwehe (oo weh' heh) - one foot lifts, then as it is lowered, the weight is shifted to the opposite hip. Then the heels are raised and both knees pushed forward while the hips sway.
`uwehe means to open, reveal or uncover

Not Found in the Dictionary!!

`Ai holoholo - same as "holo"

Akalewa - Swaying the hips from side to side

Ha`anapu - Same meaning as akalewa

Hehi - On count one, stamp right foot and raise left knee up to a position just below the hip. On count two, stamp the heel of the right foot while leaving the left knee in the air. On count three, switch legs and stamp the left foot while lifting the right knee. On count four, Stamp the left heel while leaving the right knee in the air.
Hehi means on the count of..

Ku`i - Done with loud stomping noise: hop onto the right foot while moving to the right and bring the left heel - toes pointing to the left- in front of the right knee at a distance of about six inches. Repeated four times and then switched to the other side and done again. The body is not supposed to bounce, only the legs are used.
ku`i means to pound. It can also mean to join or unite.

Ku`i Moloka`i - much like the k`ui, but while hopping to the right, the left leg goes out to the left with full extension. After the fourth count, the legs are switched. Meant to be done with a pounding noise.
moloka`i - refers to the island of Moloka`i

Hilo Ku`i - The right foot touches the ground lightly in an alternating heel to toe motion. It begins with the heel and ends the same. Done in seven counts with the foot being placed in the start position on the count of eight. The toes should point to the right at an angle of 45 degrees. The foot is perpendicular to the floor or ground and the heel in a position to the right. The opposite foot bears the weight of the body and shuffles to the right, alternating heel to toe at an eight count. On the first count, the left foot is held still, on the second count, it begins to shuffle beginning with the heel. This is done by placing all weight onto the ball of the left foot while the heel turns to the right. The weight is transferred to the ball of the left foot and it is then moved to the right. Repeated until the right foot returns to start on the eighth count. Direction is changed and process starts again. Hilo means to twist or braid.

Here's another great video

Ki`i Kuhi - Keeping time by ha'a gesturing with the left hand front and then back while the right hand taps on the lap.

Double Hela - On the count of one the right foot is in the hela position. On count two, it is brought back beside the left foot. On count 3, it is once more in the hela position. On count 4, weight is shifted by stepping on the right foot.

Ho`oholo glide or slide - kaholo step more than 2 counts. This is usually done in 3 to 4 counts.

Ka'o - swaying from side to side

Triple - Hela step. The foot is pointed to the back, then side, then front.

Ulepahu - On count one, stomp the ball of the right foot on the ground or floor. On count two, stomp the heel. On count three, stomp the ball of the left foot. On count four, stomp the heel.
This step may have its origins in the "Ulepahu I ka Motu" chant.

Finally, the "Quarter Turn" is the vamp step done within a semi-circle.

When you are able to understand the terms and can put them with the steps, you will already know several words and their pronunciations. If you are interested in learning more about the culture of Hula, there is no better way to begin than to study hula chants.

The Hula Preservation Society has several pages of chants that are written in both Hawaiian and English. You can also access pronunciation by playing audio for each phrase. To learn more about hula and the language of the people, visit the Hula Preservation Society's page at:

Traditionally, the chants are considered more important than the dance. Read some of them and you will see how hula dance is performed to a "mele" (chant) and understand how the dance interprets the meaning of the mele.

by Hula Jack -

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