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Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire by Adria L. Imada (review)
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“One afternoon in 1889, eight young Hawaiian women dressed in long white holokū (gowns) and pinned up their long hair. They were to dance hula that afternoon at King David Kalakaua’s boathouse, Healani, a few blocks from the royal palace” (29). So begins the epic mo̒olelo (story) of hula’s travels through the U.S. empire. Kini Kapahukulaokamamalu (Jennie Wilson) was one of those eight young women who danced that day. In 1892, a year after Kalākaua’s death, Kini, three other female dancers, and two male musicians, supported by an American promoter, left Hawai’i to tour North America and Europe, presenting hula in mass-entertainment venues away from the Kingdom for the first time. While on tour, the group heard about the demise of their Hawaiian Kingdom at the hands of American business barons in 1893, and several of the group were still away from Hawai’i when word arrived of the islands’ 1898 annexation to the U.S. In 1959, the Territory of Hawai’i became the fiftieth U.S. state. Throughout this political upheaval, hula tours, populated by female hula dancers like Kini, traveled across the continental United States and Europe. In Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire, Adria Imada examines these hula circuit performers’ instrumental roles in establishing U.S. political control over Hawai’i. In the process, she also reveals how these circuits have endured to the present day. In October 2012, for example, New York City Center’s Fall for Dance festival included a Honolulu hula halāu (hula troupe) on its eclectic dance program, and September saw the five winning Hawai’i halāu from the 2012 Merrie Monarch Hula Festival travel and perform with the winners of Na Hoku Hanohano (Hawai’i’s Grammy Awards) to sold-out crowds in Tokyo, Japan.

Imada’s history, written from within American studies, fills important gaps in hula’s history. Focusing on commercial hula popularized through early twentieth-century tourism markets, Imada unearths a story of colonial encounter disguised by metaphors of Native welcome and friendship. Aloha America uncovers the imperialist mobilization of Hawaiian aloha through hula—glossed as “mutuality, intimacy, and hospitality” (9)—to disguise the violence imposed through U.S. empire-building in Hawai’i. “Rather than being seen as violent and aggressive, colonial encounters between Hawaiians and Americans were frequently imagined as points of intimate contact, with Hawaiians freely giving aloha to Americans, and Americans eagerly accepting these gifts of hospitality,” Imada writes (9). She argues that by providing a mask of intimacy behind which empire becomes a “way of life,” hula performers literally and performatively produced an imperial touristic script of aloha at on-island tourist performance sites and through off-island hula circuits. As Imada points out, the imperial script required hula dancers’ bodies and performances to present a nation that was foreign, but not alien: “Hula and the young women who performed this dance served as metonyms for the Hawaiian Islands, and they made the territory intelligible to Americans. . . . The islands were not so subtly coded as sexually submissive spaces, waiting to be exploited and conquered” (180). Tracing dancers’ performances and the imperial scripts that compelled many of these performances, Imada shows how hula entertainers ultimately participated in showing once-skeptical Americans that the Territory of Hawai’i should be incorporated into the U.S. as a full-fledged state.

Imada complicates this tale of colonial encounter and imperial desire by simultaneously examining hula performers’ counter-colonial practices. How, when, and why performers participated in producing the prescribed touristic scripts (or critically failed to accurately produce such scripts) are some of the most ambitious aspects of this study. Recognizing hula as a “potent cultural and economic opportunity structure” through which women were able to “earn cultural capital and, occasionally, even a living wage, while charting their own desires for fashion, beauty, and travel” (4), Imada establishes Kini and the other female hula dancers as modern agents. Through hula, she suggests, performers were given the opportunity to create individual subjectivities informed by, and critical of, the imperial atmosphere characteristic of Hawai’i-U.S. relations at the start of the twentieth century.

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