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Hula dance is being taught in San Quentin State Prison for reform — and it's working

Hula dance is being taught in San Quentin State Prison for reform — and it's working

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LOS ANGELES (CIRCA) — "Pre-hula, I was a really dark person."

Upu Ama is a towering Samoan man with faded tattoos on his hands and long hair tucked into a Los Angeles Rams baseball cap. He spoke clearly and sincerely, staring right into the camera.

Upu Ama
Upu Ama laughs during our sit-down interview. (Circa/Nathalie Basha)

"What I took away was a deep sense of connection with my ancestors. That helped me tremendously, spiritually."

The word "hula" conjures up a lot of images: beautiful women in grass skirts, coconut bras, a gentle ukelele, tourists enjoying a luau on the lawn at the Hilton Hawaiian hotel — that kind of stuff. But not, we’d dare to venture, a room full of male inmates at one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

But twice a week, a small group of men inside San Quentin State Prison in northern California get together and practice hula. It's a stark contrast to what we (the general non-Hawaiian population) think hula is. Watch the video, and you'll find yourself hooked like we were.

Hula in San Quentin
The class in San Quentin State Prison practices a moving chant. (Patrick Makuakane)

Ama was one of those men in the hula classes, and he credits credits hula for his transformation. He served a 24-year sentence for murder in San Quentin, but in September 2017, he was released on parole.

The hula classes continue in the prison today, under the tutelage of Patrick Makuakane, from the well-known San Francisco Bay Area hula school "Na Lei Hulu I Ka Weiku." He has been a figurehead and respected kumu (hula teacher) for more than 30 years.

Hula in San Quentin
Kumu Patrick Makuakane during our interview. (Circa/Nathalie Basha)

Hula, though, is really misunderstood. Over the decades, the media perpetuated a lot of misconceptions about hula dance, making it appear to be a superficial or fluffy practice. But at its core, the cultural practice of hula is actually a moving meditation, serving as a way for native Hawaiians to catalogue their ancestry for centuries. Because of these deep spiritual underpinnings, some inmates have found that hula is helping in their reformation, too.

Hula
Most people think of hula as a kitschy dance for tourists, but it's a much deeper spiritual practice. (Videoblocks)

The prison officially classifies the hula program not as a dance class, but as a spiritual practice. It operates under the auspices of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which is a federal act that allows all Native Americans and Native Hawaiians the right to practice their customs freely—even in prison. As such, Makuakane is not a dance teacher, but a spiritual adviser.

"What I get from it is not at all what I expected," said Bun "Pee Wee." He's one of the dancers featured in the video, in class at San Quentin.

"I gained a whole culture," he said. "It feels like home. It feels like I belong."

"What I took away was a deep sense of connection with my ancestors. That helped me tremendously, spiritually."
Upu Ama, formerly incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison

Makuakane says that kind of connection and sense of belonging can be cathartic for some. But he also says, in the beginning, it was really tough to get the men to accept hula at all.

"Being a man, especially a man in prison, your masculinity is everything, that's who you are. You don't want anybody giving you a problem, and the way you shut that down is presenting yourself as a tough guy."

San Quentin hula
A few of the men performing hula inside the yard at San Quentin State Prison. (Peter Merts via Patrick Makuakane)

Makuakane pushed the men to find their "other side," as he calls it: the side of them that hides behind the bravado of the hyper-masculine, tough-guy-in-prison act. He knew it existed, and he had a hunch he could bring it out with hula.

"Hula does offer discipline. It offers a sense of humility," said Mahea Uchiyama, another respected kumu hula in the Bay Area. We spoke to her about the hula community and what it teaches its students.

Hula in San Quentin
Kumu Mahealani Uchiyama from the Center for International Dance in Berkeley, Calif. (Circa/Nathalie Basha)

"It's the understanding that community is not just the people around you, it's the people who've gone before you and the ones who are to come," she said. "The community also includes the mountains and the rivers and the trees, and the four-leggeds, and the fish. That’s your community, too. Hula teaches all these things."

San Quentin hula
Mahealanie Uchiyama shows us how hula is a moving meditation. (Circa/Nathalie Basha)

Ama is the best example of how hula in San Quentin is benefiting the men who take the class. Since his release, he moved back to his hometown of Compton and works as a truck driver for a local construction company.

"But hula really spring-boarded it for me," he said. "I think, had I not found myself spiritually, I still would be searching."

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