For Nicole Kealoha, childhood was a stressful time. Her father drank. Her parents fought. Eventually, they separated. The family scattered.
She does, however, have some happy memories from that era of her life, mostly involving music and dance. She grew up listening to Hawaiian music and dancing hula and Tahitian.
Later, she discovered pop music and got into hip-hop and breakdancing. Throughout those turbulent years, Kealoha found a certain solace in dancing.
“The arts in general really helped me,” Kealoha recalls. “It was my escape, it was my sanctuary. It was the only place where there was peace and quiet.
“I really believe the arts saved me,” she adds.
These days, Kealoha seeks to share that experience with youths through founding Diverse A.R.T. Center. Located in Kakaako, it offers classes in hip-hop, DJing, choreography, breakdancing, aerosol art, rapping, beat boxing, Tahitian and tumbling for kids ages three and up, with a particular focus on middle and high school students. In addition to providing an artistic outlet for kids to express themselves, the center also helps students hone their craft through professional avenues.
“There’s just this power that music and art have to bring healing, to bring confidence, safety, sanctuary,” Kealoha says. “It’s really important for me to give that to the kids.”
Although Kealoha admits that building up the center was, at times, slow going, Diverse A.R.T. has now been open for eight years and attracts hundreds of students annually from all over the island. And last month, it was recognized for its work as the recipient of an Appreciation Award from California-based organization Mighty4 Arts Foundation.
When Kealoha first had the idea to start a performing arts center, she was working in ministry. She had earned a degree in religion and was on staff at a church, helping coordinate its arts programming. She liked the job, but yearned for more.
“I just started thinking, if the sky was the limit, what would I do?” Kealoha recalls. “And then I just started from there — I coupled my love for the arts and my desire to help the next generation.
“I knew that it was something that I needed to do, that I wanted to do, so I had to do it,” she adds. “I had to go out and create my own lane.”
As an offshoot of its classes, Diverse A.R.T. Center also acts as something of a training ground for students to learn practical steps to pursue their art as a career.
“We help them capitalize on it, so that it doesn’t just have to be a hobby,” Kealoha explains. “If they want to, they can take it to a professional level … It’s really exciting because at such a young age, they can discover their passion and then move forward with it.”
To foster professional development, Diverse A.R.T. has partnerships with various local organizations. Students have the opportunity to participate in hands-on projects, such as designing hand-drawn type for publication, hosting an art show or DJing an event.
On any given day, the studio at 760 Halekawila St. (it shares a space with Branch Studios) is bustling. Last Monday evening, for instance, instructor Chynna Higashi led a group of hip-hop dancers as they ran through their routine for an upcoming performance.
Higashi first joined Diverse A.R.T. as a student a few years ago — and she credits it with helping her cultivate her dedication to dance.
“Here, we do so many different styles (of dance), so it’s really good if you want to learn something new,” Higashi says. “I wanted to learn more and broaden my abilities.
“I love it here because it’s not about competing with anybody,” she continues. “It’s a really family-oriented place, and we’re all here just because we like to be here.”
In the next room, Kealoha chats with a group of several teenage girls about the importance of things like maintaining a positive attitude and holding themselves in a professional manner. The girls are part of an eight-week leadership course designed to help them develop as artists — but the skills they learn there, Kealoha feels, can translate to anything they choose to do later in life.
“Diverse A.R.T. is a great place for artists to come because they don’t focus on competition and getting a gold star,” explains Lyka Mae Corotan, one of the leadership students, “but they help the artists grow both in the art, and as a person.”
Corotan, who is going into her junior year, is the president of her school’s dance club and hopes to continue dancing in college.
In addition to helping students propel their careers, Kealoha hopes that Diverse A.R.T. can provide youths with the same type of outlet that it had been for her.
“I really believe that if I didn’t give my attention to art or music, I might have gone down that (bad) road,” she says. “It became my addiction.”
One of her most memorable experiences throughout the years with Diverse A.R.T. happened while partnering with a group of troubled students from a local high school. All of them were struggling academically, to the point where if they didn’t pass a remedial class, they would flunk out.
One of the boys had been having a particularly tough time. His father had died the year before, and since then, he had not spoken to his mother. But during the third week of the program, his mom called the school, wondering what changes had taken place. She knew that
something must have happened — because, suddenly, after months of silence, he came home and talked to her.
“The art really helped him to open up,” Kealoha says. “That was one of the biggest things for me.”
For more information and a list of classes and events, visit diverseartcenter.org.