Ka Pā Hula o Kaheakulani under the direction of kumu hula Kalani Akana on the day of their ‘ūniki ceremony in August 2014. photos by Kapulani Landgraf.

The Ties That Bind Us

Before a hula student graduates and becomes a kumu hula, he or she must go through the protocols of ‘ūniki. In 1971, the same year the hula competition began at the Merrie Monarch Festival, a special ‘ūniki class was formed—one that has shaped the modern hula world. For this story, MANA was honored to get a glimpse into this private and cherished tradition of ‘ūniki.

By Catherine Tarleton

A true study of hula demands total participation of mind, body and spirit. It is not available in books or videos, although there are plenty of both. It requires shivering shoulders standing in cold Waimea rain to feel the lyrics of a mele; rough hands from scraping and sand-polishing an ipu gourd; a hoarse throat from practicing a 100-line oli; sore legs from interminable ‘uwehe and tears from weariness, from discipline or from the first joyful breakthrough.

An ancient hula protocol, ‘ūniki can incorporate years of preparation, as students learn not only to chant and dance, but to craft their own rhythm instruments, lei and costumes. Only the most dedicated hula student is chosen to make the transition via ‘ūniki to ‘ōlapa (dancer), ho‘opa‘a (senior chanter) or kumu hula. The ceremonies themselves vary widely from kumu to kumu and hālau to hālau, but common elements might include fasting, bathing in the ocean, intensive rehearsals and sharing ‘ai lolo or ‘aha‘aina ‘ūniki, a ritual meal of a roasted suckling pig, followed by a performance in front of hula experts to evaluate the student’s readiness. Continue reading