The woman Kaleikini has thanked is Maile Beamer Loo, director of the Hula Preservation Society. She produced and directed this and numerous other video recordings, as well as interviewed the dancers. Loo has logged hundreds of hours talking story with Hawai‘i’s elderly kumu hula (hula teachers) and dancers, all in service of preserving their memories, knowledge and wisdom. “The purpose of the HPS archive,” Loo says, “is to document the great voices of hula before they go silent.” She knows the work is a race against time. The words of her hanai (adoptive) mother, the late Winona Desha “Nona” Beamer, are never very far away from her mind: “When one of our treasured elders dies, a library is locked forever.”
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.