HICCUP in Hawaiian Homelands

“Eh! you the juggler guy show me ride da unicycle, what’s up bro?” Wearing surf shorts, tats and a torn tank top he had the build of a wrestler and was striding towards me in a menacing manner. A big broad smile grew across his face as he recognised me as his old circus teacher. Phew! My kids in the HICCUP van had been playfully waving to his kids as we drove alongside but it led to a middle finger salute after which he’d followed me into a gas station. Oops! Luckily, my classes in Hawaiian Homelands, many years prior, saved the day.

It all began in 1993 with HICCUP being noticed as a social and community building program by several Big Island progressives.  Moani Akaka, a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, suggested I start a class in Keaukaha Elementary School. It was a brand new challenge and experience for HICCUP because it was situated in the heartland of the island’s largest community of ‘kanaka maoli’ or native Hawaiians. 

Bringing my program to a Big Island traditional Hawaiian homeland was pioneering and I was really unsure about how my haole (foreigner) run ‘new circus’ would be received. I discovered everyone felt the same. Moani arranged a talk story with Aunty Luella Aina, who directed the community gym, the principal of the school plus a few teachers, the office staff, the groundskeepers, the youth counsellors and a few parents. Everyone was super nice and really friendly with me but I could tell that there was lots of skepticism. No-one could have predicted what happened.

I recruited Jason and his cousin Kawika, two existing Hawaiian students plus Marcus, Ari and Marcellus to help me run the classes. Marcus was a new juggler friend who volunteered at Bellyacres and had a vision to become a cruise ship performer. Ari and Marcellus had matured to be two of my teenage ‘star’ students each with a couple of years of circus class experience. I’ve always used a peer teaching approach in HICCUP so my students grew proficient in the art of teaching other students.

As a teaser, to get the program started, I took young Ari into several classrooms and had him demonstrate the skills we planned to teach.  I knew that each student saw Ari and thought if he can do it then so can I. The school sent out flyers but our very best promotion came from Aunty Luella. She initially wondered if I was going be another ‘Captain Cooke’, but after seeing me in action she became a very powerful HICCUP advocate. Her approval and vocal support was a key element in our success.

Thankfully everyone agreed for us to use the expansive playground area so we avoided the unbelievably noisy gym with it’s limited floor space, and my class became a very public spectacle. I learned that Hawaiian kids love outdoor spaces as our circus activities spread over the adjacent baseball pitch and basketball court and eventually trickled into the school and then outwards into the whole neighbourhood.  We decided to call the program ‘Na Kamalei O’ Kana’. – the children of Kana, the Hawaiian God of jugglery.

As soon as our circus van arrived on Wednesday afternoons we were greeted by gleeful kids running excitedly across the school yard. They rapidly unloaded the van rushing to get going with their favourite piece of equipment. With each pair of stilts or unicycle that I handed them I felt like Santa Claus delivering Christmas presents they had waited all year to receive. It was an incredible euphoric feeling topped by them respectfully and affectionately calling me ‘Uncle’.

I had a very informal teaching style in all my classes. I knew that after school students are tired of being under the control and direction of a teacher and listening to group instructions. After a very quick group greeting, I moved directly to one on one engagements. We only gave group instructions about how to use a prop the very first week or two. After that everyone learned from someone else who had mastered that skill. It’s the social circus trickle down theory and it works very, very well. With everyone cast as student and teacher we all felt much closer as a family without the usual institutional hierarchy that dominates traditional teaching situations. 

After helping to unload the equipment, students were expected to pick a prop, stick with it as long as they liked and then change it for something else. Instructors circulated around randomly helping students and suggesting peer to peer hook ups. Sometimes instructors got to practice themselves, demonstrating future skills for students to learn, showing that we were all still engaged in having fun and that we all made mistakes and dropped props in the play process.

I had a totally open and inclusive approach to teaching. When anyone came around to see what was going on I would give them the hand of a stiltwalker or pass them juggling props to try. This approach brought them into our experience and got them engaged and supportive. It was really effective, we even had mums, dads and toddlers playing with us.

I found that the initial shyness and inhibitions of Hawaiians could be rapidly bypassed and replaced with laughter and joy at playing a game. Kanaka’s are great games players and the kids quickly learned to love our circus classes. They all knew one another, had no inhibitions about helping out one another and in fact accepted it as their duty  without ever once complaining or acting selfishly. They taught me many lessons about the true meaning of ohana (family).

Learning circus skills takes lots and lots of practice which is not possible if students don’t have equipment available so, as I did with all my classes, I started letting my Hawaiian students take stilts and unicycles and juggling stuff home. The first week I did it Aunty Luella reported she had parents calling her up to check and see if the kids had stolen the gear or really had been allowed to borrow it.  After giving them a reassurance I was lending it to them without any charge, but simply with an obligation to take care of it, I apparently won a lot more friends and the trust of these naturally generous people. 

Not only did I have parents come up to me and offer appreciation but they also told me if I needed any help just to let them know. I took them up on this and organized a half-day stilt making session to increase my stock and also to enable them to make their kids personal stilts to keep. From then on it became a common sight around the Keaukaha homelands to see young Hawaiians cruising on stilts to their homes, playgrounds and even to school. The kids were so thrilled to show off their skills that the school had to make it a rule that they couldn’t go into corridors or classrooms on stilts or riding unicycles. These courageous young Hawaiians became so confident that they began playing soccer on stilts, another first for the HICCUP circus.

This was a new environment for me to be working in. I had presented a few Juggling for Success classes in Hawaiian schools but never had the chance to interact with the kids or to meet the families as I did in Keaukaha. It was a fabulous period in the HICCUP history and I made some lifetime friends like Darlene Ahuna, her relatives and the Aiona family and wish now that I had never stopped doing that super special program. The Keaukaha kids were always very polite and respectful and learned really fast. Several of them participated with our bigger group in parades between 1993-1996 and a few went on to perform in talent shows and community events. 

After our first year at Keaukaha I had a couple of parents from the other large Hawaiian homelands in Panaewa ask me to start a class over there. One of them was a member of the community association and I asked her to get it approved for me to use their facilities and possibly get some funding. Weeks passed and I got no answer from the community association board despite repeated phone calls so I decided to take matters into my own hands. 

One day after packing up our van in Keaukaha we stopped in Panaewa community park where a group of local kids were playing. We pulled out some of our circus props, did a little showing off on unicycles, stilts and juggling and soon had a crowd gathered around us. We invited them to have a go trying one of the skills and they loved it. We had a hard time dragging ourselves away after a couple of hours because they were having so much fun they didn’t want to stop.  We left with a promise to return the following week. I don’t think they really believed us but we did return almost every Wednesday for about two years.  

The number of kids in our informal class kept growing as word got out and little elves appeared from the neighbourhood homes.  After a few weeks as our van arrived the kids would mob us, they knew we were there just for them.  We rarely ever saw any parents at Panaewa, I’m sure they knew when we were there but never asked us for credentials or validations or anything. They must have taken the kids word for it that we were good people doing a good thing and it all worked just fine for everyone.

Panaewa became a 100% renegade circus class because we never ever did get any official permission from the association to be there or to work with their kids. We never had a list of kids or parents and never had any contact information. We did it all for free, living on faith and we never had any problems. I loved it. Living and working free from bureaucracy always appeals to me.

I strongly doubt that these kind of classes could ever be repeated today with all the concerns for child safety and liability and that is such a shame. I had a really enjoyable experience and I think Jason, ? Marcus, Ari and Marcellus did too. We were rewarded by the joy and delight emanating from the kids at the class and again when they saw us around town. Once when the HICCUP van broke down in Kona a Hawaiian family jumped out of their car to help push us explaining their kids were in our Keaukaha program. For the next twenty five years living on the island I’d meet Hawaiians who would come up to me with an aloha and memory of our time together. It’s all left me with eternal memories and a great fondness for this very special one-of-a-kind renegade experience. 

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

2 thoughts on “HICCUP in Hawaiian Homelands

  1. Graham thanks again  for another article which brings tears of joy not only on the beautiful service and fun times of enrichment you brought to so many, but also what is desperately needed in our present state of affairs in Hawaii and elsewhere


  2. Graham!

    Where are you now?

    Im just traveling with my two kids (Aiden 20 and Jessie 16!) to England for a few days in London, then working the Glastonbury Festival. Then be in England for a few more days.

    Reading your post from NY JFK airport, after 3 1/2 hours sleep after elated flights caused a strange rerouting. And suddenly wondered about possibly seeing you if you were somewhere that made sense! (Highly unlikely!)

    Xoxoxo Frank Olivier +1 510 435 9025


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