Hula Divas: Aloha America

From the 19th century to the 1950s, Hawaiian hula dancers performed for guests at home and foreigners abroad, establishing what author Adria Imada calls “imagined intimacy” between the U.S and the Aloha State as we made it safe for democracy, tourism, and the exportation of sugar. In Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire (Duke University Press), Imada traces the practice from its island origins (a “highly venerated, selective and restricted” dance that was both sacred and secular) to its kitschy reincarnation in the age of dashboard dancers.

Hula dancers, 1893

Drawing intriguing comparisons to both the Maori of New Zealand and Native Americans, Imada explains how Hawaiians protected their rituals by exporting and adapting them. “Hawaiian women,” she writes, “though frequently displayed as imperial objects, were not passive commodities….they improvised tactics to subvert colonial scripts that insisted on primitivist eroticized roles, asserted hula as a legitimate practice, and presented themselves as modern Native women and cosmopolitan tourists.”

Smartly theorized and well researched as it is, Aloha America is written in a rote, relentless academise that drains the life out of the dynamic subject it seeks to celebrate. And so a dance that was, by one 19th century account, “so amorous that the ladies [in the audience] turned aside their heads,” is here a “sexualized discursive formation” that involved “performative stagings” in the service of “the erotics of empire.” The history’s solid, but what a shame the story doesn’t swing.

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