Can a dance class free men's bodies in a place meant to contain them?

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Can a dance class free men's bodies in a place meant to contain them?
From left: Thomas Bolin, Kenneth Webb, Americus de Orenday, Frederick Griffin and Duane West rehearse at the California Institution for Men for a program that would mark their graduation from Embodied Narrative Healing, a prison arts class with a focus on dance, in Chino, Calif., Oct. 20, 2022. The program disproves the idea that “nobody dances in prison” and encourages inmates to channel their lives and emotions into movement. (Michael Tyrone Delaney/The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert

CHINO, CALIF.- Think of men in prison and you probably don’t think of dancing. But that’s what some at the California Institution for Men here were doing — dancing for invited guests.

It might not have seemed like much: some walking, some running, a bit that resembled Duck Duck Goose. Yet the men were moving freely in an environment that restricts and regulates motion. They were moving together, suddenly vulnerable, physically open, trusting — in ways that regular prison culture and the lives that led them to prison had taught them not to be. The dance was allowing the men to be seen, and to see themselves, differently.

The performance was the graduation ceremony for a new program called Embodied Narrative Healing, a class that is at once representative of changing norms in American prisons and quite unusual. From one angle, it’s part of a nationwide effort to turn away from retribution and punishment toward rehabilitation and healing, sometimes through the arts. In California, after a funding drought in the 2000s, arts programs in prisons have been expanding since 2013, with programs in all state facilities since 2017.

What makes the class unusual is dance, which is much rarer than visual arts, theater and music in prison arts programs. One reason, offered by some of the men in Chino, is that dance goes against prison-culture codes of masculine behavior.

Amie Dowling, a choreographer and professor at the University of San Francisco with more than 20 years of experience working in prisons, pointed to another possibility. “Dance has a sense of liberation and agency,” she said, and this can be threatening to “systems of control and containment, like prisons.”

Yet the men in prison in Chino were dancing. How this came to be was both a consequence of shifting ideas about which opportunities should be offered to people in prison and a bit of an accident. Among those surprised by the changes were the two men who initiated the dance program from the inside and the French choreographer who was their unlikely collaborator.

“NOBODY DANCES IN PRISON.” That’s how Kenneth W. Webb recalled responding to his friend Dimitri Gales’ suggestion that they start a dance class.

They were incarcerated at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in the desert city of Lancaster. In 2008, when Webb was 17, he shot and killed an 18-year-old after a party. He was convicted of first-degree murder and premeditated attempted murder and sentenced to 50 years to life. Gales was 19 in 2011 when he was involved in a gang shooting during which someone was injured (not by Gales). Convicted of attempted voluntary manslaughter, he was sentenced to 18 years to life.

By 2018, Webb and Gales were living on Yard A, the Progressive Programming Facility, where prisoners in the maximum security section earn admission through good conduct and gain access to rehabilitative classes.

Gales, who also goes by Buddha and is a brother of the rapper YG, was trying to teach a friend a dance called the Reject when he got the idea to start a class. “It sounded super crazy,” he said, but he convinced Webb to join him and the two wrote a proposal emphasizing dance as rehabilitation. To their surprise, the proposal was approved.

They taught the class themselves, working out routines to hip-hop and R&B tracks for about 20 other inmates. This provoked jokes on the yard about twerking and “the skinny jean crew.” But Gales was undeterred.

“We were going against a whole culture that defines dance as weak, like that’s not what men do,” he said. “People think we’re thugs, but it’s like ‘No, bro, I’m really a regular person, and this is what I like doing.’”

Gales and Webb were also taking other classes. Some were organized by Bidhan Chandra Roy, an English professor at California State University, Los Angeles, who had been so moved by inmates’ stories that the mission of getting them out to the world had nearly taken over his life.

Words Uncaged, an organization Roy founded in 2015, borrows techniques from narrative therapy (helping participants reflect critically on their life stories) and applies them to the aims of restorative justice (repairing harm) in several Southern California prisons.

Many prison art classes are funded by the state through the California Arts Council. But hundreds more programs, like those of Words Uncaged, are run by volunteers and funded by private donations. These are often affiliated with institutions like universities, which provide subsidies and the kind of endorsement that helps gain approval from wardens.

Words Uncaged spreads the writing and art generated in its classes through publications and exhibits. It had nothing to do with dance until Gales and Webb asked Roy to find them a teacher. “They wanted a hip-hop person,” Roy said. “But that would have just reinforced all the stereotypes we’re trying to get away from.” So instead, Roy brought them Dimitri Chamblas.

CHAMBLAS WAS FAMILIAR with places where adult men don’t dance. He was born in one: a village in the French Alps. When some male ballet dancers from nearby Lausanne, Switzerland, visited his parents, he was fascinated by their globe-trotting lifestyle. He started taking dance classes in his village, the only boy, and when he was 10 left his family and home to attend the school of the Paris Opera Ballet.

At 15, he transferred to the contemporary dance department of the National Conservatory in Lyon, where he became friends with later-to-be-famous classmates Benjamin Millepied and Boris Charmatz. As soon as Chamblas and Charmatz graduated, in 1992, they choreographed a rough-and-tumble duet called “Á Bras-le-Corps,” which they still perform.

Their goal was to break the rules they had been taught — about concealing weight, fatigue and the sounds of effort. What Chamblas learned from this work, he said, was the importance of context. In one part, he rolled and sat on Charmatz’s passive, floor-bound body. This was a formal idea: one body active, the other inactive. But when they danced it at a symposium about HIV/AIDS, it became about the living and the dead.

Skip through Chamblas’ successful career as a dancer, choreographer and producer to 2017, when he moved to Los Angeles to become dean of the school of dance at the California Institute for the Arts. In 2019, at Roy’s urging, Chamblas met with Webb and Gales and a few other inmates at Lancaster prison and jumped right into movement exercises in the mode of “Á Bras-le-Corps” — the inmates sharing weight with their eyes closed, trying to dance big in a small room.

After that session, the men spontaneously started telling Chamblas their stories. He was so affected by their openness that he wanted a reason to keep returning. He came up with a long-term goal: A class of 10 would create a dance with him and put on a show for visitors. It was provisionally scheduled for April 2020.

THE PROSPECT OF THIS SHOW is what brought me to Lancaster prison in March of that year. Chamblas had told me that his weekly class was precarious, sometimes canceled at the last minute because the prison was on lockdown for one reason or another. But on the day of my visit, my security clearance checked out and my clothes didn’t break any of the rules, so Chamblas and I were escorted through a series of double gates and across the sun-baked yard into the education building.

After all that control and surveillance, all this carceral choreography, I was surprised that Chamblas and I were left alone with the participants in a classroom like you might find at an underfunded community college. Everyone greeted Chamblas with hugs.

The men introduced themselves to me with their names and how many years they had been incarcerated, most in the 10 to 20 range. When I asked if Chamblas’ idea of dance was what they had been expecting, everyone answered at once: “No!”

That released an explosion of laughter. Later, I would watch them gamely and creatively respond to Chamblas’ French-accented prompts to stay physically connected to one another without using their hands or to let vibrations inside their bodies expand outward. If hip-hop dancing had met ridicule on the yard, these exercises were even riskier.

Chamblas was pushing them, as Albert Jerome Beckley Jr. put it, “totally out of our comfort zone,” and they were grateful. What they most wanted to discuss was how the dance class, along with other Words Uncaged classes, had already changed them.

“We were hard-core gang members,” said Beckley, who is serving 50 years to life for murder in a drive-by shooting. “But I’ve been able to find myself, and I like myself better now.”

Beckley compared the class to a test. Daring to dance provoked taunts from other inmates, but where before he might have responded with violence, now he laughed it off. “If you can make it in this class, you have no fear of what anybody else thinks of you,” he said. “That’s proof of rehabilitation right there.”

Some of this language could sound like a rehearsal for the parole board. But Webb, who talks like a philosopher and was not the only one to describe himself as shy, also spoke about the class as an extension of a community they were building to challenge the culture of prison and create “beacons of positivity.” Now inmates not in the class were asking how they might join.

“It’s the hope that we have,” Rashan Greene, another class member, said. “They want that.”

Words Uncaged classes had taught the men how to analyze their feelings; the effect of Chamblas’ class was physical. “We know we can be aggressive,” Beckley said, “but we had to dig deep into emotions that we have suppressed for so long. Sympathy, fear, sadness. And when I started embracing those emotions, my movements became more fluid. I was doing things I never thought I could do. I was superfly.”

The dance work the men were creating with Chamblas borrowed choreography from their life in prison — the freezing on the floor when an alarm sounds, the periodic roll call. Sometimes they recited barbed phrases from their pasts, like “You are irredeemable.” But even the running and stopping, as in a game of Simon Says, and the carrying of one another was colored by the context.

Flickering between ordinary and extraordinary, this dance might have made for a powerful performance. But a few days later, the whole project entered a stage of seemingly perpetual postponements, as the prison locked down in response to a threat outside its walls: a pandemic.

IN APRIL 2020, Gales told me over the phone how he and his classmates, now confined to their cells most of the day in the prison version of quarantine, continued working on dance moves that would fit those constricted spaces. “We really wish we could do TikTok,” he said. “We would take over the world.”

That June, Webb told me that he and Gales could now sometimes dance together on the yard. He was also allowed to visit the art room, and throughout the year, some of his paintings were exhibited in Los Angeles galleries and online. His mother, Gina, responded to his art with amazement. “This is his pain that I have never seen,” she said.

Through 2020 and much of 2021, plans to restart the dance class kept being canceled. One by one, most members of the group were transferred to other prisons. Because of Webb’s record of good behavior, he was moved to the lower-security facility in Chino. Gales, whose sentence had been commuted by the governor of California in recognition of the work he had done to transform himself, was released on parole in April 2022.

In Chino, Webb asked Roy and Chamblas to restart the dance class there. In fall 2021, they did, this time teaching the course together. The focus shifted more to trauma and how it lives in the body. Chamblas recalled doing a trust exercise with a new student, who was supposed to close his eyes as Chamblas took his weight.

“His body felt super agitated,” Chamblas said, “and afterward, he said his body wanted to beat me.” The exercise had released a repressed memory of childhood abuse.

During a class I visited in September 2022, several men spoke of having been abused and of their discomfort with physical contact. “I couldn’t handle anybody touching me,” Thomas Bolin said. Convicted of murder in 1981, he had been a member of the Aryan Brotherhood for more than 40 years, violently enforcing racial divisions in San Quentin and other prisons.

Bolin said that after making a promise to his wife while she was dying of cancer, he had enrolled in several rehabilitative programs. “But this is my No. 1,” he said. “It teaches you to have empathy for yourself, as well as others.”

“I still get angry,” he added, but he described incidents on the yard “where the Tommy of a year ago would’ve put hands on somebody, and now I walk away.” Duane West, a Black classmate, said that he and Bolin now have a “strong bond” and hang out together in public.

Bolin tearfully read aloud a letter addressed to his wife, reaffirming his promise. And then he put hands on his classmates, most of them Black or Latino — lifting them, cradling them, letting them put their hands on him.

LAST NOVEMBER, the long-delayed show finally happened. The only original member performing was Webb, but among the 40 or so invited guests who filed into the Chino prison gym, was another: Gales. Looking a little stunned, he called it “a full-circle moment.”

Although the performance was titled “Transformation,” much of it appeared mundane. Yet because these men were inmates wearing orange jumpsuits labeled “prisoner,” their walking past one another, occasionally jostling, took on an all-too-believable threat of violence. Similarly, the sight of a man running in big circles had a special impact in a place where such fast, free motion is normally against the rules.

Every time the men touched one another or carried one another, they seemed to defy the environment where such expressions of trust and tenderness are rare, even dangerous. This had a brave beauty.

After the performance, the men gathered with visitors and read aloud from the thoughtful, emotionally exposed writing they had done for the class. Visitors learned that some had been imprisoned for crimes (serious, terrible ones) committed when they were barely adults, and that some were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The men spoke about their families, their regrets and how they had been working hard to change. Inmates cried. Listeners too.

What kind of transformation was this? The effects of prison arts programs can be hard to measure, but a 2021 report by California Arts in Corrections summarized findings about how such programs help participants learn coping skills and heal from trauma, reduce anxiety and anger, form communities within the isolation of incarceration and reintegrate with their communities on the outside after release.

Brant Choate, the director of rehabilitative programs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that while “there is no special sauce for keeping people out of prison,” arts programs “create a neutral zone” in places where people are usually divided by race or gang affiliation. And in that neutral zone, Choate said, they can change.

For Denise Herz, a criminology professor at Cal State Los Angeles, the healing-centered approach of Words Uncaged allows inmates “to create a new narrative of who they are and how they want to give back,” she said. “Accountability turns into advocacy.”

None of the more than 100 Words Uncaged participants who have been released from prison have been reincarcerated, Roy said. Many counsel young people. Webb said that this was his post-prison dream: “I can talk to kids. I can be of service.”

But Dowling, the University of San Francisco professor, made a different point. “Why are we surprised there’s talent and imagination?” she asked. “We’ve been fed so much misinformation about people in prison. The rehabilitation is reciprocal, really. We on the outside need it too.”

In the parking lot after the show, Chamblas looked a little wistful. Earlier, he had told me about being in Paris, directing a fashion video for Chanel, and flying back in the middle of the shoot so he wouldn’t miss the weekly class at the prison. “These are the best people I know in LA,” he said.

Gales told me of his plans to break into the movie and fashion business and said he spent a lot of time with Chamblas’ family. (“That’s my boy, I’m always at his house.”)

As I drove away, the image from the performance that replayed in my mind was of the man running in circles. Inside the prison, the freedom of that simple motion had felt shocking, and now the meaning rippled outward. The man was Webb. He is eligible for parole in 2031.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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