High Priestess of The Ancient Hula

‘Iolani Luahine born Harriet Lanihau Makekau, was a pure Hawaiian native kumu hula, dancer, chanter, and instructor. She was regarded as the high priestess of the ancient hula. The New York Times wrote that she was “considered Hawaii’s last prominent exponent of the sacred hula ceremony,” and the Honolulu Advertiser composed: “In her ancient dances, she was the poet of the Hawaiian community.” The ʻIolani Luahine Hula Festival was developed in her memory.

‘Iolani Luahine was born on January 31, 1915, in Nāpo’opo’o, on the island of Hawaii. She was respected as a famous hula dancer that protected the ancient dance customs of Hawaii. ‘Iolani was trained by her auntie Keahi Luahine, and she taught and coached her niece Hoakalei Kamau’u. Aunty ‘Iolani’s exceptional skills, beauty to audiences, and dedication kept the ancient dance art from being lost. Her profession is a testimony to the expression that dances are given like myths, from one artist to another. ‘Iolani Luahine is among Hawai’i’s premier performer and cultural treasure.

Since 2003, The ‘Iolani Luahine Festival was established with a vision to perpetuate hula. It is also a way to honor the memory of ‘Iolani and all her contributions to the preservation of the hula and the Hawaiian Culture.

‘O Kona Kai ‘Ōpua I ka La’i chanted by Iolani Luahine Courtesy of Wanda Certo 

Raised By Her Great Aunt on Her Paternal Side

Hanai to her daddy’s ‘ohana on O’ahu, ‘Iolani was raised by her great-aunt Julia Keahi Luahine. She was called “bird of paradise”. Aunty Keahi was the primary hula trainer of her day and among the last royal dancers from King Kalakaua’s and Queen Lili’uokalani’s court. Dancing was simply a part of daily life for ‘Iolani.

‘Iolani was registered in the Kamehameha Schools, once her auntie learned that dancing hula was prohibited by the missionary– indoctrinated organization, ‘Iolani was sent out to the Priory, at St. Andrew’s Cathedral,
where hula dancing was allowed. ‘Iolani was an undergrad at the University of Hawaii when she started hula classes with Mary Kawena Puku’i. After the death of her aunty, ‘Iolani understood that her objective in life was to continue the customs for the ones to come.

Began Her Teaching

Aunty 'Iolani Luahine usind a treadle board in her dance.

Aunty ‘Iolani Luahine using a treadle board in her hula.

‘Iolani opened her studio in her house on Queen Street in Honolulu in 1946 and taught hula to trainees of any ages. Partnership and performances followed with Mary Kawena Puku’i and Lokalia Montgomery to rave reviews. ‘Iolani and Lokalia were the very first receivers of the State Order of Distinction for Cultural Leadership in 1970. That exact same year, both females got medals for their contribution to the arts from the State Foundation of
Culture and the Arts.

Her widely known haumana consisted of George Naʻope, Kawaikapuokalani Hewett and her niece, Hoakalei Kamau’u. In 1947, modern-dance leader Ted Shawn called her “an artist of world stature.” She continued to carry out and work together with other prominent hula artists, including her previous instructor, Mary Kawena Pukui, and Lokalia Montgomery. She’s included in 2 documentary, one in 1960 and the other in 1976, and a number of Tv programs. She has been described as the “high priestess” of the ancient hula”, a “connect to conventional Hawaiian culture”, and “the last handmaiden to the Hawaiian gods.

“When ‘Iolani Danced, She Drifted”

Kumu hula 'Iolani Luahine Image Courtesy Bishop Museum

Kumu hula ‘Iolani Luahine Image Courtesy Bishop Museum

Her students and pals mentioned her lessons in a reverent way. Luana Haraguchi called Luahine her biggest impact and stated, “When she danced, she drifted. In some cases when she taught, she would simply tell us a story, about individuals, the kinds of rain and plants in a specific song. It might last 2 or 3 hours. That was the dance class.

The Honolulu Advertiser wrote that those who saw her perform “generally discuss the practically magical experience she appeared to channel. Some state she had “a deep spiritual connection to the hula goddess Laka and the volcano goddess Pele.”

‘ Iolani took hula to the National Folk Festival in Wolf Trap, Virginia 3 times. Sharing the standard art form, with all respect to the goddess Laka.

Descended down from a long line of Kaua’i dancers, trained to perform for the ali’i, ‘Iolani had actually inspired many throughout her life. On December 10, 1978, all Hawaii grieved the death of ‘Iolani Luahine. Her gift of hula will long be remembered and this hula celebrations mission is to keep in mind those gifts of love she left for everyone to perpetuate.


Aia lā ‘o Pele (Mele Honoring Pele) courtesy by ‘Iolani Luahine – Topic, YouTube Sound Only


‘Ae Luv Hula