Since Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF) is a maximum-security prison, recording our time there is very challenging. We can’t film, voice record or even bring a pen with us to our Tuesday night teacher-training sessions. On January 12th we started the six-week teacher-training program at DWCF with five inmates who were in the Daily Camera’s article on Dance 2B Free from November of 2015.
We have spent 4 hours so far with these five women. Their raw beauty, honesty and deep vulnerability in a terrifying environment is chilling and inspiring.
Because recording is not allowed, our volunteers and myself jump into my car on the way back to Boulder and immediately record our joy on my cell phone in an effort to remember every detail we can of this magical experience. I don’t use the word “magical” lightly or casually. These 4 hours have been nothing but magical. Alice Robbins, Gayle Nosal, Bj Brown and myself have helped lead these two sessions thus far; these are the moments we captured of dancing in prison with women – some of whom face life sentences and some who are going to leave one day…possibly to teach!
As we sat down in a circle to start the check-in process and discuss the agenda, curriculum, certification etc, guards come in and out of the room with the doors smashing shut behind them – in and out – no apologies. The atmosphere is invasive on many levels, with cameras in every corner – yet, DWCF has made this possible which is not to be forgotten or taken for granted. Once again, LT Ross is our biggest supporter and made this 6-week session come to fruition.
We asked the five inmates how dance had shown up in their lives and quickly they shared stories of dance being a part of their lives since they were children. They went onto explain how they had to acquiesce to their husbands – that dance became shameful, oppressed, and inappropriate. Yet in D2BF’s classes they feel “free” and “relaxed.”
They shared what they thought their strengths and weaknesses becoming teachers would be; some expressed a fear of being seen – yet they are afraid of not being seen. They fear being judged by other inmates but want to find themselves in the dance.
The first night we started out with a breathing exercise where one woman inhaled and her partner exhaled. We had them breathe in pairs together in this inhale/exhale pattern for a few minutes as we reminded them that they were one organism and to stay connected to one another. There was no resistance, or exclamations of “What?!” They jumped right into a vulnerable exercise with willingness and trust.
Chantal Pierrat, the creator of SoulSweat created a fabulous training about ten years ago for teachers to become certified instructors. I have taken pieces of that training and adapted them to fit into prison. One of the beautiful exercises we play with revolves around the elements: earth, air, metal, water and fire. We all tend to move through life with a certain flavor to our movements whether we are walking down the street or dancing in class. With this exercise we sit together and free-associate about whatever comes to mind when thinking of each element; and then we dance that element.
As a group they shouted out words that came to mind about metal such as: deep, heavy, foundation, damaging, industrial, sturdy, hurtful, angular, danger, sharp etc. I then played a song called, “Stereotypes” which is a fast -paced violin song by Black Violin. As they danced to the music I shouted out the words they used to describe what metal meant to them.
When we sat back down to check on how they were impacted – I was floored. It hit me. Their lives ARE metal. They are surrounded by metal on every level. Four of the five women said that dancing in the metal energy was very hard, uncomfortable and difficult for them. They once again shared with profound honesty about what it brought up for them. Chrystie said she started to feel the sadness of her daughter’s death – feelings that she doesn’t let herself feel such that she had to bite her lips as to avoid screaming. Luz said she feels like she is already wearing a shield just to survive prison so dancing to the metal element was even more confining. Sarah said she was a “fighter” on the streets yet, she loved the metal element – she found freedom in the restriction. Michelle said she felt trapped.
Of course dancing with such an intense element such as metal would bring up anger, memories and resistance. But wow!! These women can express themselves eloquently and with such raw clarity. There is no pretense in the room. These women are dealing with the harshest environment day after day, yet they are willing to expose themselves while supporting one another.
Luz went onto to explain: “It’s so easy to lose our identity in prison.” Sarah said some inmates are “joy stealers” and that she has not let anyone in emotionally since she arrived at DWCF 11 years ago. Some have circles of friends outside of this group – some do not and stick to themselves – but this group of five shares trust and love that is palpable in the room!
After the elements exercise we had the ladies lead us with my choreography as they practiced using words of encouragement and descriptive language to enhance their movements. The innocence and playfulness in the room was contagious. Michelle kept shouting out, “Whoop,” “Shake your money maker,” “Get rid of him!” Chrystie reminded everyone to undulate their spines and relax their necks. Sarah, who holds her breath often, kept shouting out, “Breathe!” They are supportive and encouraging of each other; there is no sense of competition among these five women.
In closing they thanked us from the deepest place I know of…
Michelle said,”You are the S.H.I.T….we feel like women…you treat us like we matter in a place that says we don’t matter…We made mistakes, but that is not who we are.” Amanda, who is the newest student of D2BF shared in our closing circle that she lost her mother two days prior to our session. When she started crying the other inmates encouraged her to let the tears fall and one inmate said, “If I could hug you I would.”
Luz, who is serving a life sentence said, “You brought God to my family. My family lives in Mexico and I don’t want them to come to this country to visit me in prison so I haven’t seen them since 2008 – but when the article came out in the Daily Camera along with the YouTube video, my family saw that I am at peace.”
Others went onto share…Luz Cisneros moves to the music with other inmates on Sunday.
“I want to find clarity…I had to grow up in prison – I want to find myself”
“I want to remember who I was before I came to prison.”
“This is a place where I feel seen as the woman I am versus my criminal behavior – thank you for seeing us not for our crime.”
“We matter to you…you could be working tonight and making money but you are here.”
“The time went by so quickly, I can relax here, I might sleep better tonight.”