For most of us, what pops to mind at mention of the word "hula" is a vision of tawny, grass-skirted belles wiggling in lascivious invitation to a saccharine twanging of ukuleles, or some similar bit of Hollywood-spawned South Seas schlockery.

The resemblance to the real article, which happens to be on view this week in performances at the National Gallery's East Building in conjunction with the superlative "Art of the Pacific Islands" show, is negligible. Forget the wavy skirts, the campy gyrations, the connotations of sexual overture. Ditto the ukuleles.

Instead what one sees are three female and two male dancers and their seated leader performing dances of almost indescribable plastic grace, to the sweet lilt of their own chanting and the rhythm of tapped gourds.

The group is the Halau O Kekuhi, from the city of Hilo on the island of Hawaii. Their leader, hula master Nalani Kanaka'ole, comes from a family which has been performing and preserving traditional Hawaiian chants and dances for at least four generations. Anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler of Honolulu, one of the guest curators of the Pacific Islands show, recommended the troupe to the National Gallery, and their transportation was made possible by Continental Airlines.

The dances do have their sensual aspects. The characteristically rippling arms, the gently tilting torsos and rotating pelvises have a curvaceous allure which is decidedly earthy, if not overtly erotic. But the subtle undulations, dips and pivotings of the individual dancers and of the ensemble as a whole are more apt to evoke the swoop and roll of surf, and what these dances seem to concern more than anything else is the harmony of man and nature.

Though hula dances have oten been performed in modern times as entertainment, those which are faithful to the ancient forms -- the dances shown by the Halau O Kekuhi are from two to five or more centuries old -- still bespeak their sacred origins and content. One group of dances on view at the Gallery consists of invocations of the volcanic fire goddess Pele, for instance. And everything within the performances relates to divine being. The circlets of greenery, for example, that adorn the dancers' heads, necks, wrists and ankles, are not just symbols but embodiments -- the vegetable form of Laka, goddess of the dance.

There's been a 10-year renaissance of interest in traditional Hawaiian culture that hasn't peaked yet, according to the troupe's director Nalani, an art history major at the University of Hawaii who, together with her mother and sister, teaches hula to some 60 students ranging from 4 to 30 in the early morning and evenings. Hula is at the center of this revival, she says, because it's the only institution which has survived unscathed the cultural hybridization Hawaii has been subject to.

"Nothing is written down," Nalani says, "not the chants nor the dances, so everything is passed on from generation to generation orally. Though we like to perform outdoors, we practice inside, the better to preserve and magnify the 'mana' -- the spiritual power -- of the group.

"In our time, we teach the dances physically, but in my grandmother's day they were still taught subliminally -- the teacher appeared to the pupil in a dream, and the next morning the pupil danced the dance she had learned the night before. In this way, without physical interpolation, the purity of the dance was less easily corrupted. We are trying now to reclaim this way of doing it, but it will take time."

The 30-minute hula performances can be seen daily through Sunday at noon and again at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The noon dances are given on the East Building lawn, weather permitting, otherwise all performances take place on the East Building's Concourse level.