In the last place you’d expect, hula dancing is helping prisoners get reformed in California.
At San Quentin State Prison in Northern California, you expect to see some of the toughest hombres in the state. People living there are often serving long sentences for violent crimes, making its all-male population particularly butch--just like you’d expect from prison.
And yet twice a week, inmates are setting aside their tough masculine exteriors to do something that has typically been seen as a feminine practice for decades: hula dancing.
But this isn’t the sort of hula dancing popularized in movies and TV shows. There aren’t any grass skirts or flower garlands, and while there might be a guitar, it’s not plinking out delicate notes while hips sway on a sunny beach.
Patrick Makuakane teach hula dancing twice a week at San Quentin. From the "Na Lei Hulu I Ka Weiku" hula school in the San Francisco Bay Area, Makuakane has been teaching hula for the past 30 years. And as you might expect, his brand of hula is less of a flashy dance and more of a “moving meditation”, as Circa News describes it.
Hula as a cultural practice actually has deep spiritual meaning. The dance itself was first formed as a means of communicating with the ancient Polynesian gods, and over the years has evolved as a means of honoring the Hawaiian culture.
For this reason, San Quentin classifies their hula courses as a spiritual practice and not a dance class. Makuakane is less a dance instructor and more like a priest or spiritual advisor. His classes fall under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which allows native practices to be performed anywhere, including San Quentin.
It wasn’t easy getting hardcore prisoners to accept hula dancing. As Makuakane describes, "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."
It took years, but he managed to get through to enough prisoners to convince them of hula’s deeply spiritual nature, and inmates are saying it’s been a big help.
"What I took away was a deep sense of connection with my ancestors. That helped me tremendously, spiritually,” said Upu Ama, a former inmate that served 24 years for murder. He credits hula with helping him make parole.