Author-scholar Adria Imada, who was born and raised in Hawaii, began learning hula in kindergarten and later joined a troupe. Courtesy of Adria Imada

Hawaiian history via hula

Adria Imada’s award-winning book Aloha America explores the influence of politics, colonization, tourism and religion on the islands’ traditional dance

Adria Imada is one of the newest faculty members in UC Irvine’s Department of History, but the associate professor is already making waves as the author of Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire (Duke University Press, 2012).

She received the Organization of American Historians’ 2013 Lawrence W. Levine Award for the best book in American cultural history; the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians’ 2013 prize for best first book on the history of women, gender and/or sexuality; the Congress on Research in Dance’s 2013 prize for outstanding publication in dance research; and the American Society for Theatre Research’s 2014 Sally Banes prize for best work exploring “the intersections of theatre and dance/movement in the previous two calendar years.”

Currently an American Council of Learned Societies’ Burkhardt Fellow at the Huntington Library, Imada shared her thoughts on hula, Hawaii and her book:

What motivated you to research hula?

I was born and raised in Hawaii and identify as a nonnative scholar of Hawaii and Hawaiian culture. I took hula lessons from around the time I was in kindergarten through intermediate school. After graduating from college on the East Coast, I moved back to Hawaii, started Hawaiian-language classes at night and joined a hula troupe. Hula was a way for me to understand the chanting and orality of Hawaiian poetry, as well as its deep embodiment. So I began to approach Hawaiian history through both language and dance. This book was a means of unraveling the complications of dance and politics that I saw in contemporary hula as well as in earlier hula practices. Furthermore, I was really troubled by characterizations of tourist hula dancers acting under false consciousness. I wanted to demonstrate that hula performers are – and always have been – highly aware of how they interact with capitalism, colonization and decolonization. I was very interested in trying to reconstruct the history of politics and dance in new ways and also to interpret past practices of hula that could possibly be revealing and helpful to people now.

What’s an interesting fact about hula that most people don’t know?

Prior to Western contact, men had privileged access to hula; they retained hula genealogies and were the principal chanters and drummers. Often these performers identified as mahu (transgender). However, when performers were exported out of Hawaii and began to tour in the late 19th century, there was a distinct European and American preference for viewing the bodies of Hawaiian women. Thus, women’s bodies became much more visible onstage. Hula performances by women became more theatricalized, and images of these dancers’ bodies were circulated to publicize these tours. This trend continued throughout the 20th century and influenced how the U.S. encountered Hawaii over the last century. The female hula dancer became a symbol of Hawaiian hospitality. However, we should not assume that hula dancers (of any gender) advance the American colonization of Hawaii. Their participation in hula may be countercolonial, but it’s also based on relationships to kin, cultural capital, entrepreneurship – it’s very complicated and shouldn’t be reduced to a simple colonial interpretation.

Aloha America synthesizes dance history, visual studies and U.S. history. How do you identify yourself as a scholar?

I describe myself as an interdisciplinary humanities scholar. I would not be able to do this work without thinking really promiscuously across and through disciplines. My experience with this work led me to archival research, ethnography, performance analysis and visual analysis. I don’t think through a conventional discipline – that’s an advantage for the kinds of stories I want to tell, and that’s what makes it so interesting for me. My current work on the history of medicine crosses all kinds of boundaries into photography, visuality of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and disability studies. I’m reaching for capacious views of medicine, healing and indigenous experiences. It’s sometimes very challenging, but the subjects I choose demand these kinds of interdisciplinary approaches.

Could you share one of the most rewarding moments you’ve had since publishing Aloha America?

It has been very rewarding to have my work be recognized by four very distinct professional associations, but one of the best experiences with Aloha America was being invited back to Hawaii to give a talk. I was really nervous about how islanders in my home would receive the work that I had researched for the past 10 years or so. But some of the most generous responses came after a colleague taught the book in her Hawaiian history graduate seminar. The graduate students were really appreciative as readers and defended the book in ways that I wouldn’t have expected. Recognizing my name on the sign-in ledger at the Hawaii State Archives, some of these same students approached me at my desk. They asked “Are you Dr. Imada?” and proceeded to thank me for my work, explaining that my research was really helpful to their evolving understandings of indigeneity, gender and race. The fact that my work was useful for students, especially for people who identify as Hawaiian or as Hawaiian activists, was really gratifying for me.

Where should a visitor to Hawaii go to experience an authentic hula performance?

Friends and colleagues often ask me for Hawaii recommendations, particularly about where to access more authentic hula and Hawaiian cultural performances. In my scholarly writing, I’ve argued that there is really no such thing as an “authentic” nontourist luau, because the origins of commercialized entertainment lie in performances developed for outsiders like the military and tourists. That being said, some dancers who have weaved back and forth from commercial to competitive hula have performed for this luau: I encourage visitors to experience tourist performances like these from the perspective of an outsider but also to read more about the political and cultural economies of Hawaii as experienced by those who live there. Some accessible essays by native and nonnative writers imagining alternative futures for the islands have been published recently in The Value of Hawaii, volumes 1 and 2. For those who wish to view a popular, mediated form of hula competition, I suggest the annual Merrie Monarch hula festival. I discuss this prestigious competition in my book but highly recommend watching even a few performances.

Do you still perform/practice hula?

I no longer practice hula, but it’s my hope that my daughter will begin learning later this year in Orange County. When we go back to Hawaii, we visit the halau (troupe) of my former hula brother Ikaika Dutro and attend his rehearsals. I’m also fortunate to be able to experience hula periodically through kumu hula (hula teacher) Ed Collier, who allowed me to follow his Halau O Na Pua Kukui to the Merrie Monarch hula competition.

You’re now writing a book on Hawaiian health and illness. What’s the connection between hula and health?

I’ve always been interested in looking at what decolonization looks like on the ground, so to speak, outside formal state formations. In my first book, I looked at Hawaiian self-determination as it was performed – quite literally – through hula in the 20th century. My current research is on the visual history of leprosy in Hawaii, where 8,000 people were forcibly exiled to an isolated leprosy settlement beginning in 1866. Many of these patients were subjected to medical experimentation by Western physicians. I’m trying to understand how this history is mobilizing Hawaiians today to decolonize Western medicine and the care of the body. In other words, indigenous health is also a decolonizing practice that intersects with hula as a form of embodied history.