THE BLOG
04/07/2014 08:16 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

What Hula Is... and Isn't: Celebration of Culture on Target to Outshine App Controversy

Native Hawaiians explain that hula is not simply a dance or a recreation, but a way of life.

This is never more visible than during the Merrie Monarch Festival, when Hawaiians across the islands and the world gather to watch the world's most prestigious hula competition.

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Photo Credit: Merry Monarch Festival

This month the 51th Merrie Monarch Festival will take place in Hilo on Hawai'i Island from April 20-26, 2014.

The Festival is named for Hawai'i's King David Kalākaua, who is credited with revitalizing the Hawaiian culture as foreigners were moving in to seize Hawai'i for political and economic gain. Kalākaua once said, "Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people."

That heartbeat continues to beat strong today.

Hālau, or hula schools, spend months preparing for the competition each year. Preparations consist of extensive training and practices; ceremonial rituals and spiritual cleansing; gathering native plants and other traditional materials; creation of costumes and hula implements. The entire process embodies the diligence devoted to the perpetuation of the craft and tradition. One only bear witness to the awesome commitment the hula community dedicates to the custom and it is obvious that hula is sacred.

Every hālau is comprised of numerous male or female dancers, many of whom have spent their lives growing up in hālau. For many dancers, competing in Merrie Monarch is a lifelong dream.

And the numbers of hula dancers around the world continues to grow. Estimates put the number of dancers in Japan near 1 million dancers, with hundreds of hālau across the entire country. There are hundreds of thousands of dancers elsewhere throughout the world, including countries in Europe. Hula has gone global.

As Hawai'i and the world make the annual preparations for the festival little attention remains on the highly offensive "Hula" iPhone app that focuses on sexually transmitted diseases. Aside from the obvious offense of trademarking a name created and established by the Native Hawaiian people for thousands of years for inappropriate commercial purposes, the app reignites the historical trauma foreigner-introduced sexually transmitted diseases had on Hawai'i. STDs introduced by foreigners nearly wiped out the Native Hawaiian population and left irreparable harm on the governance and well-being of the people.

The app makes a mockery of that injury and lasting harm. It further openly mocked the Hawaiian culture, as the creator would attend events in a plastic lei announcing the app was to help people get "lei'd."

One must also wonder what sort of hubris is required to license the name "Hula" and declare oneself its founder and CEO, when hula as a custom and tradition is universally established?

The name outraged Hawaiians, Hawai'i residents and hula supporters around the world. Petitions instantly popped up to get creator Ramin Bastini to change the name. Public offers were made to Bastini to attend the Merrie Monarch Festival, all expenses paid. Olive branches were generously and sincerely extended.

All efforts to reach a suitable compromise were rebuffed by Bastini and he refused to change the name.

Yet, the market has responded as reviews panning the app continue to build. With overwhelming "1 Star" reviews, one cannot imagine there is much of a future for this app or its creator, as this was surely one of the worst branding blunders in recent memory.

The bottom line is that while this controversy will quickly fade from the limelight, the lifestyle of hula will continue on, bright as ever, beneath the lights of the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium.

This Johnny-come-lately was never any match for the hula community or the Hawaiian people.

They never are.