Dancing allows one to feel both open and vulnerable. to put your faith in those around you.
Given that prisons are institutions with a focus on structure and confinement, it is possibly the least likely form of art to be found inside.
The California Institution for Men in Chino, some 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, has a thriving inmate dance program, according to Brian Seibert, a dance critic for The New York Times. The students put on a graduation ceremony for their class while Brian spent months covering the history and growth of the organization. According to Brian, the kids performed a dance that allowed “the men to be seen, and to view themselves, differently.”
Following a financial crunch in the 2000s, prison art programs in California have been growing recently, with programs available in all state facilities as of 2017. The expansion of these initiatives is a reflection of a larger national shift away from punitive measures and toward inmate rehabilitation.
The tweet below confirms the news:
“How a Dance Class in Prison Helped Inmates Find Some Freedom –
An arts program in a California state facility disproves the idea that “nobody dances in prison,” encouraging inmates to channel their lives and emotions into movement.” https://t.co/VKbwjIckWD
— Torr Leonard 🧵 (@torrHL) June 11, 2023
Volunteer-Run Dance Program Helps Prisoners Heal
Even within this evolving structure, the program Brian concentrated on, Embodied Narrative Healing, is uncommon since it is managed entirely by volunteers and is sponsored by private donations rather than by the government. And it’s about dance, which is less common in prison art programs than visual arts, theater, or music.
The existence of a dance curriculum, according to Brian, “is such an anomaly and, really, an accident.” What all the males told me was that touching other people was either forbidden or permitted but aggressive in their world.
The simple trust exercises that are a staple of high school theatre classes, for example, become “profound inside of this environment,” he said.
What’s more amazing is that renowned French choreographer Dimitri Chamblas is the Chino program’s instructor. He met Bidhan Chandra Roy, an English professor at Cal State Los Angeles, at an event in Los Angeles. Roy had founded a company that provided restorative justice art lessons at jails in Southern California.
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Working with the convicts instantly captured Chamblas’ attention, and they did too, Brian informed me.
Someone of Chamblas’ prominence rarely instructs in a prison arts program. He has at least once interrupted the production of a fashion video in Paris and returned to Los Angeles in order to make it to the weekly class at the prison.
“Chamblas knows nothing about prisons or about teaching in prisons, and of course there’s a whole industry of people who specialize in this and all kinds of scholarship,” Brian said. “He just goes in there with this big heart and his postmodern ideas, and they respond to it.”
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