On December 10th, 1978, iconic hula dancer Iolani Luahine died in her home on Hawaii Island. She was 63 years old. Her mastery of hula and love for Hawaiian culture made her a fixture of the Second Hawaiian Renaissance.
Born as Harriet Lanihau in the village of Nāpoʻopo’o on Hawaii Island in 1915, Luahine was adopted by her great aunt, which she explained as a powerful act of love: “To express appreciation, you give someone a child, even if they were not related. It was the highest gift,” Luahine told the New York Times in 1975. She was stricken with an eye illness as a child, prompting a name change to Iolani, which means heavenly hawk. Reportedly, she never had issues with her eyesight afterward.
Called the high priestess of ancient hula, Luahine is regarded as one of the greatest hula dancers of the 20th century. Her lineage attests to this — she was born into a full-Hawaiian family who traced their genealogy to royal dancers — and so does her tutelage. She began learning hula as a child from her great aunt, Julia Keahi Luahine, a preeminent kumu hula and one of the last royal dancers from King Kalākaua’s and Queen Lili’uokalani’s court. She later attended University of Hawaii, learning from another Hawaiian icon, Mary Kawena Pukui, who pushed her to study traditional hula instead of the commercialized version that was in vogue at the time.
She opened a hula studio in Honolulu in 1946, and quickly gained international acclaim afterward; Ted Shawn, one of the most influential modern dancers of the century, called her “an artist of world stature.” Among her many students was George Na’ope, who would become a renowned kumu hula in his own right. She also played an advisory role in the creation of the Miss Hula competition for the Merrie Monarch Festival, later named Miss Aloha Hula.
Luahine was profoundly inspired by the beauty of the natural world. She was even described by several people to possess mystical qualities that enabled her to predict and control weather and command the peaceful obedience of animals. Her dancing reflected her connection with nature. In the 1976 documentary about her entitled Iolani Luahine, Hawaiian Dancer, she danced as the narrator explained: “The imagery of nature and its voices is expressed in the hula; winds blowing softly, waves lapping. Earth, sea, and sky were sources of joy and beauty, reflecting familiar passions, mountains spewing lava, waves sweeping the sand, the tranquility of the ocean; all are symbolic of human emotions.”
When Luahine danced, she embodied these emotions in their state of nature, emoting with her body, feet, hands, face and eyes. This was not just artful aesthetic; it was a deep connection with culture and tradition.
“Nature’s forms were the Hawaiian gods who could occupy anything at their command; stones, clouds, streams, plants, living and non-living creatures,” the film’s narration continues. “The hula expressed love for the gods, and no dance was performed without inviting them to attend. The goddess of the dance was Laka. In the dance, she was the spirit possessing the dancer’s body. United in the dance, dancer and Laka become one. The living being of the goddess herself. The dancer is Laka.”
The sheer joy of spiritual connectedness emanated from her in her performances, described as ineffably affecting and powerfully resonant. Though she was recognized with countless awards and honors after her death, her greatest legacy was passing on a love of hula to the next generation.
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