How Dance Artists are Addressing the U.S. Prison System in Their Work, Both Onstage and on the Inside
For 22 years, dance artist Brianna Mims and her family have believed that her uncle Ronald Coleman Jr. was wrongfully convicted of involvement in a murder. Coleman has been serving two life sentences plus 65 years and is currently in Calhoun State Prison in Morgan, Georgia. During this time the family has worked tirelessly on his behalf, soliciting lawyers and criminal-justice–reform nonprofits to take his case. So far, though, they have struggled to get the help they need to challenge Coleman’s conviction.
But Mims refused to give up. Drawing on her years of experience creating work at the intersection of art, abolition and social justice, she decided to advocate for her uncle in a new way: through dance.
As part of a 2022 multidisciplinary installation called Uncle Ronnie’s Room, Mims mined her family history to transform an old cell in Los Angeles’ Chuco’s Justice Center—a former juvenile detention center turned community space—into a re-creation of her uncle’s childhood bedroom, with the space between the cells becoming the site-specific stage for the dance portion of the work. Her goal was to inspire audiences to get involved by showing them who Coleman is as a person, the impact incarceration has had on his family and—had he not been imprisoned for the last two decades—the alternate possibilities for his life.
Mims, a 2019 graduate of the University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance and a Dance Magazine 2022 “25 to Watch” pick, joins a growing array of artists using dance to shed light on issues surrounding incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline and the justice system as a whole. Some are teaching dance and choreography directly to inmates. Others are using their personal experience as the foundation for concert works addressing these complex, and sometimes controversial, themes. And others still are channeling their frustration towards the justice system into something more hopeful: a dance-based imagining of a different, more just future.
Movement as Liberation
“When you think about imprisonment or the justice system, you think about the ways our bodies are under attack,” says Ana Maria Alvarez, founder and artistic director of CONTRA-TIEMPO Activist Dance Theater in Los Angeles. “Our access to liberation and our access to power is through our bodies.”
Alvarez’s work joyUS justUS takes on the justice system’s disproportionate impact on communities of color and, instead of dwelling on hardship and deficit, focuses on the joy emanating from these communities as the root of freedom. The dancers don’t move only to music, but they also dance to the cadences of spoken text that incorporates elements of the U.S. justice system, like poetry derived from the Miranda rights and courtroom discourse.
For Alvarez, combining strong, full-bodied movements with these emotionally and politically charged words underscores why embodied performance is such an apt medium for this kind of work. “Dance is such a powerful tool because it’s rooted in our bodies, in our movement, in our connection with one another and in the ancestral wisdom of continuing to move in the face of incredible struggle and violence,” she says.
Choreographer and prison abolition activist Suchi Branfman, who works with incarcerated men in the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a medium-security facility in Norco, California, explains that the same idea applies to her work. Plus, she says, dance is just a whole lot of fun. “To witness and be with people who are dancing while living in a cage is a direct antithesis to confinement,” she explains. “We laugh a lot. There’s deep joy and community-building in dance, which is amplified when you’re dancing with folks inside prison.”
Going Beyond the Personal
Choreographer Kyle Abraham’s 2016 work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Untitled America, dives into the ripple effect imprisonment has on the families of the incarcerated. Abraham has an uncle who served time in prison, and the family’s lived experience informed the work. But he looked beyond those connections during the creative process. “I wanted to focus primarily on the humanity of the situation,” says Abraham, whose interviews with previously incarcerated individuals played a large role in the development of the work and the stories that were told onstage.
Mims, too, drew from her own experiences, family memories and the stories of her ancestors when creating Uncle Ronnie’s Room. At the beginning of her choreographic process, she looked to her great-grandparents’ legacy as organizers in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. For the score, Mims asked her grandmother for suggestions from her great-grandparents’ music library. “I just sat with the songs for a long time and really let them get into my body and my spirit,” she says. “After doing that for a bit, I went into the studio and started moving to them.”
Community Behind Walls
While some dance artists are using the stage as a platform for change, others are going inside to create it. Patrick Makuakāne, an innovative hula artist and the director of Nā Lei Hulu i ka Wēkiu in San Francisco, has been the spiritual advisor at San Quentin State Prison since 2016. In this position, Makuakāne now leads the Native Hawaiian Religious Spiritual Group, which, before the pandemic, was a gathering of San Quentin men from Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures—as well as several Vietnamese, Filipino and white members—that met once a week to learn about Hawaiian culture and dance.
“ ‘Spiritual advisor’ is the term that prison officials use, but I think of myself as a community builder,” Makuakāne says. “And that’s what the men really responded to. They learned that hula is more than a dance, it’s about taking care of one another in community.”
Branfman made a similar discovery through her choreography project at CRC, which, prior to the pandemic, had been meeting weekly since late 2016. “When you make a big circle in a gym in a prison and turn on good music, everybody dances,” she says. “The root of the work that we do is understanding that dance is a way of being together in community and thriving and sustaining ourselves.”
After COVID-19 restrictions made in-person gathering impossible, Branfman pivoted in an effort to maintain the community she and the CRC prisoners had created. Using written packets, she invited the dancers to continue choreographing. What they wrote and sent out became Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic, a series of works directed by Branfman which continues to be performed in person, virtually and via other forms of media by dance artists on the outside.
Reclaiming the Ripple Effect
Branfman’s and Makuakāne’s work reverberates beyond prison walls too. Makuakāne says that it’s not uncommon for members of his group to reach out to him after they’ve been released to thank him for the skills they learned through hula. Branfman’s work presents a great deal of food for thought for audiences, as they witness stories told from the inside.
Abraham, too, kept the lessons Untitled America could teach his audiences in mind, specifically those viewers who haven’t directly experienced the impacts of incarceration. “Something that I was really drawing on in a lot of ways was my mother being in the hospital and knowing that she wasn’t able to leave,” he explains. “People who may not have someone in prison can connect with being in a space they don’t want to be in or thinking about how hard it might be when they can’t see a loved one.”
And, in addition to using the visceral nature of dance to convey the difficult emotions surrounding incarceration, artists like Alvarez are using movement to put a new future on the table, showing by example what a reimagined justice system could look like. “How do we use joy, community, dance, music and power to build a system that is thinking about our health and well-being?” she asks. “It’s going to take rethinking the entire model of how the justice system works. JoyUS justUS is a proposal on how we can imagine a future that’s full of more love and more justice.”