Her studio walls are lined with old photos draped in dried maile lei, ipu (gourds) of varying shapes, feather-embellished lau hala hats — and of course, that Elvis photo. For the past twenty-eight years as kumu hula (hula teacher) of Hālau Hula Wehiwehi O Leilehua, Gordean has shared her Hawaiian culture and love for dance with countless students. Her fervor for hula is matched by her other joys: farming and lei making.
Gordean admits that this trifecta of passions is only natural. She grew up on O‘ahu, where she helped her mother, Josephine Leilehua Kiesel Lee, in the family flower shop, Josie’s Florist.
“My love for flowers and lei making was really nurtured in that shop,” she recalls. “I learned from her what’s beautiful in lei and how to care for the flowers.”
When she was ten, she took up hula with Mahi Beamer of the famed hula and Hawaiian music family. When Mahi left Hawai‘i to study at Juilliard School of Music in New York, Gordean studied under his cousin Nona Beamer, and with hula master Ma‘iki Aiu Lake, who later guided Gordean through the rigorous training required to become a kumu hula herself.
“Even in those young years I didn’t care to go play with my friends as much as I wanted to go dance hula,” she says.