Where the hula goddess lives

Far off the beaten path, James D. Houston discovers that the sources of hula, Hawaii's sensual dance, still sway in a sacred Kauai site.

By James D. Houston

Published March 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I first heard about the hula terrace from a Hawaiian dancer. We were talking about the spell cast by certain modern-day performers, whose voices and supple bodies seem empowered from an older time. She said that if I wanted to understand the true sources of hula, I should visit this place called Ke'e, on the island of Kauai.

"It's mostly lava rocks," she said, "a kind of rocky platform out there by itself. It's dedicated to Laka, our deity of hula. You probably won't see any dancers. But you'll see where the dancing begins."

This was an intriguing idea, a very Hawaiian idea: that a dance tradition could be linked to a gathering of rocks, might somehow originate there. I had to see the place, and last fall I finally had my chance.

Though it isn't marked on many maps, the old terrace was not hard to find. Kauai is a small island. There is only one road to the north shore. I followed it from the main town of Lihu'e, up the windward side, bore west toward Hanalei, with its glistening taro ponds, and on past Lumahai Beach, where they filmed scenes from "South Pacific." Out that way razor-topped canyons notch the shoreline. About a mile past Ha'ena, the most northerly point in the main Hawaiian chain, the road ends at a sandy little cove called Ke'e Beach.

From there, as the dancer had instructed me to do, I hiked along the shore for 100 yards or so. Beyond the last house on that side of the island, a wet path cuts inland through pandanus thicket. Nothing marks the route until you have climbed a while and come upon a simple sign saying, Ka-Ulu-O-Paoa-Heiau. "Heiau" means place of worship. "Paoa" had been a famous priest in this region. The corner of an old foundation loomed above me, the remains of the temple named for him, now a sloping stack of lava rocks.

Climbing out of the trees I saw that a whole hillside had once been terraced with rock embankments rising from the temple toward a small plateau. On this uppermost level I found the platform, a rock-bordered and grassy rectangle, at the foot of a stone cliff splotched white with lichen.

It is called Ka-Ulu-O-Laka Halau Hula. "Halau" means a long house or meeting place. "Ulu" means to grow or increase, as well as to be artistically inspired by a god or spirit. Thus: A Place of Dance Honoring the Inspiration of Laka.

Whenever I come upon one of these revered Hawaiian sites, I have learned to stand still a while and listen and look around. Why here? I ask myself. Why not closer to the beach? Or at the top of this cliff? Or across that ravine? There is always some appropriate mix of features that gives the spot its own appeal and holding power.

In the case of Ke'e, it is important to bear in mind that hula in early Hawaii was much more than a form of entertainment. For dancers it was a sacred calling, to which you dedicated your life. Hawaiians had no written language. Chanters and dancers were the poets, historians and keepers of the flame. Hands and arms and hips and feet were trained to tell the stories of the people -- their gods, their origins, their voyages and exploits and affairs of the heart -- and keep them alive from one generation to the next. Hula was the centerpiece of traditional culture, just as it has been the centerpiece of the current cultural renaissance. So any place dedicated to the deity of hula had probably been chosen with considerable care. According to the famous myth of Pele and Hi'iaka, this is where the high chief Lohi'au sat drumming for some dancers, when his compelling rhythms were heard by Pele, the volcano goddess, from her fiery home in Puna, on what is now called the Big Island. Drawn toward the sound, Pele's spirit-body traveled north from island to island until she reached the halau hula, where the handsome chief was instantly smitten by her great beauty. In his nearby house they spent three days together, then Pele's spirit-body left Kauai and returned home. Unable to get Lohi'au out of her mind, she sent a younger sister, Hi'iaka, on a mission to bring him to her. Thus begins a complex epic of high adventure, love and rivalry, death and transformation. One of the Pacific's great legend cycles, the story of Pele and Hi'iaka links Ha'ena in the far north with the Big Island's active crater region in the far south, underscoring the significance of this old halau hula in both the geography and the mythology of the Hawaiian chain.

From the grassy terrace, looking north, it is all blue ocean, with nothing between this cliff and the Aleutians 2,400 miles away. Out of that infinity the swells roll toward you. Near shore, each rising edge becomes a pencil line across the blue, then breaks to gush over wet black rocks directly below, where the inshore swirl is marbled turquoise.

My dancer friend had told me that she and her troupe once flew here from the Big Island, 350 miles south and east, to pay their respects to the goddess who first brought hula to Hawaii. They began by dipping themselves in those waters, said to be healing and purifying for performers. They entered from Ke'e Beach, and then, with their leis and skirts and ankle-ferns dripping, they climbed barefoot up the trail and made an offering of their dance.

In the wall behind the platform there are niches and small ledges where the most recent offerings could be seen, nontraditional, left by visitors paying their respects -- a bunch of wild daisies, a circular head lei of close-pressed flowers, a piece of starfruit, a polished kukui nut, a fresh mango wrapped in a ti leaf.

Root tendrils dangled from above. Higher up, ti plants and papaya trees had sprouted from the cliff. The plant-layered wall, with its natural altar, is framed by two narrow canyons that shape a bowl, a cathedral of eroded lava. The two canyon jungles, thick with palms and more papaya and ironwood and ferns, slope steadily toward the peaks and scoured ridges that cup around behind. One bold spire seems to rise like an obelisk, and above these peaks, the clouds spilled seaward, gauzy, urgent clouds floating down from Mount Wai'ale'ale, 10 miles away, known to be the wettest spot on earth.

As these clouds poured over the ridges, they mirrored the panorama of rolling surf. Their gliding shadows could also change the colors of the sea, from turquoise to diamond blue to cobalt. I felt I knew then why dancers had been coming there for centuries to commune with hula's guiding spirit. I saw what my friend had meant by "sources." The changing water, the spilling clouds, the creased and jagged peaks behind, were all bathed in an uncanny liquid light. A wind swept down to riffle the palms and the papaya trees, and the whole place had come alive, moving in its own kind of elemental dance.

James D. Houston

James D. Houston is the author of "In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey," published by Mercury House, and the award-winning novel "Continental Drift," reprinted last fall in the new California Fiction Series from the University of California Press. He lives in Santa Cruz.

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