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Performing Arts from Asia, Pacific Islands, and Hawaii

Throughout history, the performing arts have given us a way to preserve, celebrate, and share our cultures with others. Dance, theater, and puppetry are among the performing arts that have long histories in many countries throughout the world. As part of our Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian Heritage (AAPINH) Month series, we thought it would be fun to highlight some of these art forms from across the AAPINH communities. Read on to explore their history, learn some new dance moves, and more.

Vietnam Water Puppetry

The tradition of water puppetry in Vietnam started around one thousand years ago, when puppeteers would put on shows in water-filled harvested rice fields. These shows, still popular today, use fig wood figures painted with colorful lacquer to tell stories about the daily life, history, and festivals of Vietnam through folk tales and vignettes. Puppeteers usually stand chest deep in the water and operate the puppets with bamboo rods and strings from behind screens. Shows are often accompanied by orchestral music and chanting or singing.

Learn more about Vietnam Water Puppetry


Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theater style that incorporates song and dance, as well as music and miming. Kabuki Theater uses elaborate sets, costumes, lighting, and props to create an over-the-top spectacle.  Kabuki started as an avant-garde art form, enjoyed mainly by the lower classes. The spectacle was over-the-top and the crowds were rowdy. In the 1700s, Kabuki Theater became more standardized, with recurring characters and more consistent storytelling. Now considered a classical art form, Kabuki finds its place, along with Noh and Bunraku, on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Still, it has stayed true to its outlandish roots.

Learn more about Kabuki:


Hula is a traditional form of Hawaiian dance. These dances were designed to tell stories or pass on information. Hula dances were often characterized by regional influences, especially the natural landscape, but the stories they told were consistent. Hula focused on the creation of the islands, and retold history and legend through movement, lyrics, and music. The arrival of the Christian missionaries in Hawaii greatly impacted hula in Hawaii. For a time, public performances were banned, and performers went “underground” to keep the tradition alive. In the late 1800s, hula came back into public in Hawaii, but the Christian influence made its mark. Instead of telling the stories of creation and local history and legends, these new hula dances told stories about nature and kings and queens. The lyrical style also began to resemble Christian hymns. After the U.S. annexed Hawaii, the tourist industry and Hollywood tokenized and stereotyped Hawaiian culture and especially hula. Today while stereotypes still exist, there is also more respect, and Hawaiians can once again embrace the old traditions of hula. Hula is, after all, more than what you may see on stage.

Learn more about hula:


Haka are traditional ceremonial dances that originated with the Maori who are native to New Zealand. There are many types of haka designed for different events and ceremonies. Probably the most famous style of haka is the Peruperu haka. These haka are war dances designed to ready fighters for battle, to intimidate their foes, and to invoke the god of war. Other types of haka are performed during important events, such as cultural celebrations, weddings, and funerals. The haka tradition was made internationally famous by the New Zealand national rugby team, The All Blacks, who perform a haka before each international match as a way of challenging their opponents. Women’s rugby has also taken up the tradition with their own haka. If you want to learn a haka, check out this step-by-step video that teaches the All Blacks haka.

Learn more about the haka:


The sasa is a style of seated dance that has its origins in Samoa. The rhythmic dance is performed to the beat of a drum. Traditionally performed by boys and/or men, the sasa incorporated actions that mimic parts of daily life. Today, men, women, and mixed groups perform sasas and the movements may be more complex. You can try out a little bit of sasa dancing with this video.

Learn more about sasa dancing:

Bonus: – This video teaches the Samoan alphabet through a song and a sasa.

With so many countries, cultures, and traditions, we have barely scratched the surface. Here are some resources about performance art across Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Hawaii:


Hula Ki’i (Hawaii)

Indian Puppetry

Bunraku (Japan)

Wayang Kulit (Indonesia)

Chinese Shadow Puppetry


Maori Theater (New Zealand)

Noh (Japan)

Beijing Opera (China)

Kathakali (India)

Theater of the Philippines


Meke (Fiji)

Khon (Thailand)

Korean Traditional Dance

Mongolian Traditional Dance

Fatele (Tuvalu)