Memories of the Dance
Story by Lynn Cook
Photos by Olivier Koning
“What we did was dance,” remembers Kaleikini. Her hands sweep up and out as she talks, telling stories of her days dancing hula in Europe, South America and New York. “Some of us thought of other careers. I was going to be a nurse. But then I would never have seen the world.” Kaleikini, who is in her 70s now, was one of the famous Hula Nani Girls, gracious and elegant Hawaiian women who took hula to the world in the 1950s and ’60s. The Hula Nani Girls created precision lines of dancers that moved in unison, and their impeccable performances continue to inspire modern hula today. Across the globe, they introduced people to true Hawaiian culture and dance.
Kaleikini lived hula as a child. She talks fondly of the old days, when money was not an issue. “We just went to dance when we were called,” she remembers.
“If the job paid $6, each dancer got two and took it home to the family. We had no bank accounts, just some quarters on the dresser.” Making a pua (flower) gesture, she says she still dances in Honolulu when some of the Hula Nani dancers get together. “If someone calls, we just go where they need us. We keep dancing to stay young.” She steps away from her memories for a moment and leans toward the woman who is recording her words. “I’m so glad you folks are doing this,” Kaleikini tells her. “Lots of us are gone, you know.”
Beamer herself spent a lifetime working to preserve and protect Hawaiian culture. As a young Hawaiian woman studying at Colorado Women’s College in the 1940s, she had witnessed first-hand the distortions of her culture: One evening her classmates took her to see what they thought was real hula. The performance was in the sideshow tent of a traveling circus, and Beamer was shocked that this vaudevillian act was being passed off as hula. Later in life she would take her own dancers on the road, all packed in a converted hearse named Begonia, and over fourteen months they would drive thousands of miles across the United States presenting what she called “real hula, not dancing bears.”
Beamer was a performer, storyteller, songwriter, activist and educator. In her 30s, when she was the manager of the Waimea Ranch Hotel on the Big Island, she began recording all that she had learned, seen, heard or read about ancient hula. Over the years she filled the walls of her study at the hotel with more and more butcher paper, using it to record her research and reflections. Then one awful night the hotel burned down, and all of Beamer’s work went up in smoke. Distraught over the loss, she stopped her record-keeping.
Then one day forty years after the fire, Beamer received a letter from a young woman named Maile Loo asking to study with her. Beamer said yes. The two hit it off so well that eventually Loo officially became Maile Beamer Loo, hanai daughter of her teacher. And from that relationship, HPS was born.
“HPS really began quite unassumingly one day after hours of intense training at Mom’s house in Puna,” remembers Loo. Sitting at the dinner table talking hula, Nona Beamer pondered what kumu hula George Na‘ope would have to share about a particular form of hula. “Thinking for a moment, Mom said, ‘I only know Beamer hula, what my grandmother taught me,’” remembers Loo. Nona paused. “We should ask Uncle George,” she said. That comment grew to a plan for videotaping the legends of hula—teachers, dancers and chanters—and creating an easily accessible archive of everything hula for future generations. The Beamer women realized that the fading memories of Hawai‘i’s elders, most in their 80s and 90s, were the last direct link to great-grandparents who were, very possibly, witnesses to the traditions of hula during the time of the Hawaiian kingdom. “No one was out there asking our treasured elders what they remembered,” says Loo, “stories that could be shared for generations to come.”
The duo looked for any earlier documentation that did exist. It was spotty at best, says Loo, and none of it was recorded on video. Listening to audio oral histories housed in the University of Hawai‘i libraries, it was clear to Beamer and Loo that words were not enough. “People talk with their hands and their eyes, especially hula people,” Loo says. “What we wanted to know, to document, was when they first saw hula, when and how they were selected as students, who were their teachers.” The pair asked questions about history, costumes and adornments. When the kupuna (elders) felt so moved, they would often rise and allow the video camera to record their steps and motions.
Another legend whose story has been documented by HPS is Kent Ghirard. Ghirard was a 12-year-old boy in 1931 when he sailed from San Francisco to the Islands on a luxury liner. Watching the graceful hands and bodies of hula dancers as they greeted the ship in Honolulu, he fell in love. Back in California he found a teacher and started his own hula training, and in 1947 he sailed away from a presumed career as head of his father’s business, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, to follow his love for hula. It was Ghirard, the “tall Caucasian person teaching hula” as Leialoha Kaleikini remembers him, who started the famed Hula Nani Girls. In HPS interviews, dancers remember one of Ghirard’s inventions, the green hula panty. Ghirard costumed his dancers in bright tops, often strapless, and green ti leaf skirts— sans the then-conventional below-theknee bloomers. Rather than be too risqué, his solution was a bright green hula panty that would match the skirt, allow for its great swish and sway and show beautiful, bare legs. The dancers still laugh about dyeing their own panties. “The panty makes dancers giggle,” Nona Beamer used to say, “but it does the job!”
Hula costumes from the 1920s, scrapbooks, photos, vintage 78 records, audiocassettes and hula implements have all been donated to the HPS by hula elders. What began for two women as a labor of love for hula has grown into a federally recognized nonprofit. Nona Beamer died in 2008, and Loo now carries on the work herself. The first documentation was done on a shoestring, Loo says, and the organization still runs “very lean,” though it has been slowly augmented with grants from foundations, private donors, the State of Hawai‘i and the federal government.
In the twenty-first century, the love for hula seems to grow exponentially every day. Hundreds of thousands of dancers in Japan, Mexico, Europe and all over the world eagerly search for hula fact and wisdom. Letters, emails and text messages come in to the HPS web site regularly, asking for answers, information and “real hula teachings.” Loo is happy to see so many visitors. At the moment, she says, HPS is putting its limited resources into capturing as many stories as possible. In the future, though, she plans to grow the HPS website, www.hulapreservation.org, and to share all of the organization’s precious interviews on the web. “We know that our online library can be used by hundreds of thousands if not millions of dancers,” she says, “who have an honest desire to learn about hula and Hawaiian culture.”
On May 11, 2012, as part of the International Waikiki Hula Conference, HPS will stage a tribute to Kent Ghirard, who died August 29, 2011. It will be held at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, and the Hula Nani Girls, including Leialoha Kaleikini, will be dancing. For information, call (808) 247-9440 or visit the HPS web site.