The steps are not complicated. But as kumu hula Vanessa Helsham likes to tell her inmate students: "Life is not about being fancy."
Prison inmates can learn
life skills through ancient
By Janine Tully
It's about commitment, discipline and spiritual growth -- lessons learned in hula, she says, lessons that reach beyond prison walls at the Halawa Medium Security Facility.
Wallace Ma'ava, an inmate with the halau, says he took hula at first to get away from his living quarters. But now he sees hula as something more.
"Hula is not only about motions," says Ma'ava. "There are so many lessons we can learn. It teaches you about being one, unity. Like life, there are skills (in hula) that are necessary to learn to become successful. Yes, we made mistakes, but we are willing to make changes. If I can make things work gracefully, like in hula, maybe things will work out when I get out."
Last month the 25 men of Halau Hula O Halawa, after months of practice, performed in front of 200 fellow inmates.
Wearing white shirts and grass skirts they made themselves, the men entered the gym chanting, lining up in rows of four, three and two.
Helsham called out "E Makaukau" (get ready), signaling the men to take their places. What followed was a display of grace, masculinity and strength. Dancing to the beat of the ipu (gourd) and chants, the men told stories about the goddess Pele, lava flows and the human spirit.
Their movements were not fanciful, but fast-paced and warlike, like those seen in hula kahiko (ancient hula).
Helsham kept the steps simple, teaching her students movements taught by her kumu hula, Vicky Holt Takamine. But she reminded the audience about the demands of the dance.
"For those of you thinking hula is easy, it is not," she told the audience. "It requires a lot of legwork."
Maureen Tito, the prison education administrator, asked Helsham six years ago to teach hula as part of the prison's cultural program, which teaches Hawaiian language. Helsham is an education clerk with the learning center.
As a kumu with her own halau, the idea intrigued her; it also made her nervous. After all, she remembered thinking, some of the men were "hard-core" prisoners. But not one to shy away from challenge, she took on the task.
With a hula book in one hand and an ipu in the other she ventured into the classroom wondering what teaching method she'd use -- intellectual or gut-driven?
"I decided to go with my gut and heart."
To diffuse any tension and make everyone feel more comfortable, she shared her feelings.
"I told them, I'm not better than any of you. I'm a human being who also makes mistakes."
This bit of heartfelt disclosure won her the men's trust and respect, she said.
At first only 15 men joined the halau, but as it gained acceptance the numbers increased.
Some of the men got ribbed at first for dancing hula, said Helsham.
But now hula has become a respected part of the inmates' culture, said Ed Lamm, supervisor of the prison's learning center and a strong supporter of its cultural program.
Helsham credited the Department of Public Safety and Halawa Warden Nolan Espinda for keeping hula an integral part of the prison's cultural programming.
But Lamm said that without Helsham's drive and commitment the halau wouldn't be where it is now. "She has volunteered her time to teach hula when budget cuts forced staff cuts."
Hula classes were first conducted in a small room Helsham described as "small and hot, (like) an imu (oven) with no a/c. ... The men steamed up that room so that the walls would drip with sweat."
The men are still sweating, but the class has grown to 25, moved to a larger room and even has a waiting list.
Some of Helsham's hula students, who last year were transferred to Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., have continued the tradition started in Halawa.
They, too, have formed a halau as a way of keeping in touch with their roots, even in the snows of Minnesota.
"The men danced hula in a Christmas talent show and it was a big hit," said warden Tim O'Dell. "They did a great job."
For Helsham, hula is not only about dance, but a way to teach the men about self-esteem, respect and behavior modification.
If she's successful, the men will not return to the halau behind bars.
"I tell them, if you make a mistake in hula you don't want to keep doing it. You want to change," she said. "The same thing in life."