Rhetoric meets hula hands

Culture / The American obsession with hula is a complex one. On one hand, tourists from the continental U.S. consistently flock to hula shows and luaus, hoping to experience the exotic taste of the islands. On the other hand, in the eyes of the very same tourists, hula is strictly kept at a distance, confined by its “exoticism.” In Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through The U.S. Empire, Adria L. Imada, associate professor at UC San Diego, explores this convoluted dichotomy. Imada looks into hula’s historical role in both legitimizing U.S. imperialism in Hawaii, as well as encouraging the twisted perception of the “Aloha spirit” embodied and commodified through hula. Somehow, as Imada uncovers, hula captured the fantasy of Americans across the nation, through “hula circuits,” or tracks of touring shows. Imada ties her personal experiences as a member of a halau hula with scholarly texts to reveal critiques of the way our nation has responded to and recreated hula.

A large chunk of Imada’s book focuses upon developing her suggestion that hula circuits stretching beyond Hawaii, into mainland theaters, clubs and military bases both further formed and actually morphed Hawaiian hula from its traditional roots. The passive, feminine style of dance well-received by American viewers along the hula circuits, further enabled audiences to feel authoritative to the new 50th State being annexed into the nation. It also pushed viewers to feel that all Hawaiians wanted to become colonized. The commodity of hula boomed, and thus pushed Hawaiian culture into a whole new realm of desired entertainment.

Imada also poignantly covers personal stories from various hula dancers who actually toured on these circuits in their heyday, only to return home, shunned by family members and friends. Sisters and brothers, aunties and uncles accused these women of essentially selling out, and not delivering true hula.

For a reader who is not deeply familiar with hula and its culture, and may be guilty of watching hula simply for the entertainment factor, Aloha America is a refreshing page-turner. Albeit the moderate level of scholarly information, Imada makes the text easy to digest, also injecting touching anecdotes of hula life behind the stage lights. The final product is a book that is more an interesting field study than strict academic rhetoric.

Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through The U.S. Empire, Adria L. Imada

Duke University Press, 2012

Paperback, 392 pages, $24.95