E Laka, e hoʻoulu ʻia.
Laka, grant us inspiration.
— Line from a prayer for inspiration and growth

Think about how you felt right before your last performance or big game. Were you nervous and fearful? Or were you calm and sure that everything would go well? If you felt confident and in sync, and if the performance was awesome, then in a way, you have experienced a little bit of what Laka means to a hula dancer.

Who is Laka?

Laka is the goddess of hula. A hula dancer prays to Laka to hoʻoulu, or inspire her for a performance. The dancer and Laka become one in the dance. The dancer is the body—that which is moved. Laka is the inspiration—that which causes movement. Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui says that Laka “ . . . is dancing through the dancer.” She explains the term “hoʻoulu ʻia” as a “surge of strength and control that gets a job finished. That turns an acceptable bit of work into a superior one.” Laka is what inspires the dancer to a better performance.

What are Laka’s names and forms?

Mele for Laka address her in different names. In those mele, she is known as Alalalahe, ʻAlohi, Aloha, or Kaulanaʻula.

Aloha mai iā mākou e Kaulanaʻula,Grant us love, O Kaulanaʻula,
Eia nō ka ʻula lā,Here is the sacred gift,
He ‘ūlāleo, he kānaenae aloha na mākouA gift of voice, a chant of
iā ʻoe e Laka,affection
E Laka ē, hoʻoulu ʻia.O Laka, inspire us.


Laka is also a goddess of the forest. She is reproductive energy. She makes the forest grow and thrive. When going to the forest, we ask Laka for permission to enter. Her kinolau are the ʻaʻaliʻi plant (Dodonaea spp.), the lama tree (Diospyros sandwicensis), and the maile vine (Alyxia oliviformis).

Laka’s kinolau are very important for the kuahu, or the hula altar.

[Aalii] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.[Maile] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.[Lama] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.

What is hula kuahu?

[Kuahu] Kinolau of the akua are placed on the altar.Hula kuahu, or training in sacred hula, takes place in a hālau hula. At one end of the hālau is a kuahu, or altar, which is used for religious ceremony. A hula dancer in training is dedicated to Laka. There are many kapu—rules that must be followed—in this style of training. The kapu help to keep the student focused so she can learn quickly and learn well.

What is Laka’s role in hula kuahu?

The kuahu in the hālau is decorated with plants that are important to hula. It serves as a temporary home for Laka. It is customary to find the following plants adorning the kuahu: maile, ʻōhiʻa lehua, halapepe, ʻieʻie, ʻōhiʻa ʻai, kokiʻo, hau, maiʻa, kī, ʻilima, palapalai, and lama. Having these forest plants on the kuahu is symbolic of the growth that the hula dancer is seeking.

Mele Kuahu[Translation] Altar Prayer
E Laka ē,O goddess Laka,
Pūpū weuweu e Laka ē,O wildwood bouquet, O Laka,
E Laka i ka leo,O Laka, queen of the voice,
E Laka i ka loaʻa,O Laka, giver of gifts,
E Laka i ka waiwai,O Laka, giver of bounty,
E Laka i nā mea a pau.O Laka, giver of all things.


[Hoopaa] Artwork by R. Y. Racoma.
For some, the condition of the plants on the kuahu is indicative of the success or failure of the training. By observing the rules, keeping negative thoughts and feelings outside the hālau, and dedicating oneself to learning, the greenery should remain fresh throughout the training period. If the plants wilt or turn brown, it may signal that the learning is not happening the way it should.

Who is Kapo?

Kapo is mentioned in certain moʻokūʻauhau, or genealogies, as an older sister of Pele. She arrived in Hawaiʻi before Pele, and took up residence at Kāʻana on the west side of Molokaʻi, where she established the first school for teaching hula. Kapo is also known as an akua wahine invoked in sorcery.

What’s the connection with Laka?

The relationship of Laka and Kapo is complex. Laka is believed to be a child of Kapo, although their parent-child relationship is unique. Laka is thought to be a form or spiritual energy of Kapo. Laka and Kapo are described as “one in spirit though their names are two.” Pukui explains:

“This Kapo was a goddess whose temper was violent and vengeful. But when worshipped by dancers and chanters, this same person was the gentle Laka, the spirit of the wildwood. Yet when the kapu of seclusion was disregarded by a student or teacher during the period of devotion to hula training in the halau, the loving Laka quickly changed into vengeful Kapo and smote the culprit. So was the hula respected in the olden times; it was beneficent when rules were kept, yet deadly when they were not.”

What does Laka mean to us today?

Laka gives us many haʻawina (lessons) to think about and learn from. We must show respect and ask for entrance into the forest, which is Laka’s realm. We seek permission to pick the plants of her forest. The dual nature of Kapo–Laka reminds us to be committed and diligent in our work. And Laka, the inspiring force of hula, teaches us that truly great performance is the result of the dancer possessing the discipline, emotion, and joy of the dance.

[Wahine hula] Photo by Michael Young.