How Can Men in Prisons Use Dance to Access Their Emotions, and More?

To dance is to put yourself out there and feel free. To believe what people say.

It might be the least likely type of art to be found in a jail, which is meant to be a place of confinement and order.

A dance critic for The New York Times named Brian Seibert recently wrote about a successful dancing program for inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino, about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

Brian spent months writing about the history and growth of the program, and he saw the students perform a dance at their graduation ceremony that helped “the men to be seen, and to see themselves, differently.”

After a lack of money in the 2000s, art programs in California jails have been growing, and since 2017, they are in every state facility. The growth of these activities shows that the country as a whole is moving away from punishment and toward helping prisoners get better.

Embodied Narrative Healing, the program that Brian worked on, is unique even within this changing framework. It isn’t funded by the government; instead, it is run by volunteers and supported by private donations. And it’s about dance, which is less often taught in jail art programs than visual arts, theater, or music.

Brian told me, “The dance program is such an odd thing, and it’s kind of a fluke that it’s there.” “All of the guys told me that touching other people isn’t allowed in their world, or if it is, it’s violent.”

Even simple things like trust exercises, which are a big part of high school acting classes, become “deep” in this setting, he said.

Even more amazing is that the Chino program is taught by the well-known French choreographer Dimitri Chamblas. At an event in Los Angeles, he met Bidhan Chandra Roy, an English professor at Cal State Los Angeles who had started a group to teach art lessons to people in Southern California prisons as a way to help with restorative justice.

Brian told me that Chamblas was quickly drawn to working with the prisoners and that they were also drawn to him.

Someone of Chamblas’s status doesn’t usually teach an arts program in prison. At least once, he stopped directing a fashion video in Paris in the middle of the shoot and flew back to Los Angeles so he wouldn’t miss his weekly jail class.

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“Chamblas doesn’t know anything about prisons or teaching in them,” Brian said. “There are a lot of people who work in this field and do a lot of research.” “He just goes in there with his big heart and his postmodern ideas, and they respond to it.”

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