I taught a dance class at Sterling Correctional Facility in Sterling, Colorado last Saturday.
Julie Rada, a theater artist, has developed an acting program for the inmates there, and she invited me along to observe her work and to teach a little bit.
Words are inadequate to describe what took place while I was there. They -- words -- make the experience smaller than what it was, but I’ll try:
It is breathtaking, also devastating, to witness the imagination in a body that is caught, take shape.
It is gorgeous — also heartbreaking, also hopeful — to see the humanity in each of those caught bodies, reaching for connection.
In a place meant to strip away anything close to tender, I experienced only warmth, only honesty, only wonder.
It was Julie, me, and 10 or so men — all in for life — in a pretty standard classroom room that afternoon: chalk board, linoleum floors, chairs, tables, and a way too small window.
And in that room, we noticed our breath together, felt our feet on the earth together, shook, growled, kicked hard, shifted our weight as much and as big as we could, raised our arms up, and then dropped them, with a loud "HUH" sound -- over and over again.
We spelled our names out with our bodies.
Our full bodies.
Taking up space and sharing it too.
Seeing each other as best we could, while also focusing on the shape of each letter.
“Do you mind if I change my lowercase S to an uppercase S?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“Dance has meaning. I didn’t know that. I just thought it was cool moves. But it means something more, doesn’t it? Like….I feel it, in me.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I feel it too.”
We paused then, to sense the stillness around us, and to hear the silence of one another.
One of my favorite moments (and there were many) was when Julie was handing out certificates for a play everyone had recently performed in, and one of the men interrupted Julie and said, “Hold on a minute. Let’s remember who made this happen guys. It was Julie. Julie made this happen.” He stood up and held his red plastic cup of lemonade high, “To Julie!” All of a sudden we were all standing, clinking cups, “To Julie” we said over and again, “To Julie.”
As we were packing up, saying our good-byes, and being herded out by the guards, one of the men caught my eye:
“Will you be back?” He said.
“Oh yes,” I said, “I’ll be back.”
Maybe these are the words I’ve been looking for to try to explain what happened last week, from fellow dancer and reader of this newsletter, Nita Little:
“I don’t think of dance as a performing art so much any more. I think of it as active practice in becoming the change that can knit worlds.”
That’s what happened last Saturday, inside the prison, in that room, with those men.
Our worlds, for a short time, were knitted together.
I think that’s why I said, without thinking too much about it, “Oh yes. I’ll be back.”
To knit our worlds together again, if even for a moment.
But then again, who am I to use any word in a situation, and a system, that I know absolutley nothing about, save for the two hours I was there last week with Julie?
So maybe in the end, there no words to describe what took place last Saturday.
Joanna and The Agitators
sweetly agitating/persistently upending