This Program Uses Dance to Help Incarcerated Women Work Through Trauma
"I put on Lorde for a warm-up song," says Lucy Wallace, recalling a dance class she was giving to a new group of students. "As soon as I started moving—literally just stepped to the right and moved my arm—this woman behind me said, 'Oh! This is spiritual.' "
But she wasn't the typical dance student, nor was this a typical studio. This woman is serving a life sentence at Denver Women's Correctional Facility.
That was back in 2015, during Dance To Be Free's first class at a women's prison. Since then, the nonprofit organization has expanded to 13 prisons across eight states, offering dance as a healing medium—and even providing teacher training—for incarcerated women.
Courtesy Dance To Be Free
The idea for the program came about almost randomly, says Wallace, who has a masters in psychology and grew up studying ballet. At the time, she owned a studio in Boulder, Colorado, where she taught a basic adult movement class, also called Dance To Be Free. When she was toying with the idea of turning her studio into a nonprofit, a friend suggested that she create a program to bring dance to incarcerated women.
"It was so simple—the thunderbolt moment," says Wallace. "Almost every single woman in prison is suffering from some sort of trauma. I knew that the physical movement would help them heal."
Courtesy Dance To Be Free
But, she says, prison was a totally foreign concept. "I had no idea what I was doing, I'd never been to a prison, I've never had family members in prison or any personal story about it."
So her original idea was cautious: To film herself teaching at her studio, burn it onto DVDs and send them to a prison so women could follow along. "I look back on that and I'm like, 'What was I thinking?' But I was scared." Wallace was encouraged to teach in person when she attended a training session for volunteers. About a month later, she held her first class at Denver Women's Correctional Facility.
Wallace was floored by the initial feedback. Remember that student who immediately called out the spiritual nature of the class? "How did she know my intention was not just 'Let's exercise and have aerobics and burn calories'? I couldn't believe she picked up on that so quickly."
Wallace continued returning to Denver to teach weekly, one-hour classes to the facility's general population. Anyone who'd earned the privilege could attend, regardless of their crime. "That was a real wakeup call for me. You can have someone serving a life sentence and someone getting out in a week in the same class."
A typical Dance To Be Free class pairs emotive popular music—everything from Depeche Mode to Nicki Minaj to Eminem—with a high-energy blend of lyrical, hip hop and jazz movements. "They're doing deep yogic breathing, stretching, moving, punching, kicking."
More than anything, it's about empowerment. "Sometimes we interview the women when we have permission to film, and they share their life story—addicted parents, sexual abuse, rape, neglect," says Wallace. "They're like survivors of war. The thing that's really potent about dancing is it brings back control to your body, whether you've been pinned down or unable to run away or violated. When you dance, you're in control. That's so huge for healing."
Courtesy Dance To Be Free
Within its first year, Wallace designed a teacher-training program, which involves dancing and guided journaling and equips incarcerated women with the tools to lead classes themselves. As momentum built, Dance To Be Free expanded into more locations, including Nebraska, Mississippi, Florida and even Hawaii.
Whenever she leaves a prison, Wallace donates a set of DVDs and CDs with the movement and music for 12 classes. "It's 12 hours of original choreography, 150 songs and 150 routines that match up. Usually about five women in each training step up to teach, and I'll say, 'You guys are gonna hold the torch until we return.' "
"Now we're at the point where we're training the women how to lead the teacher training," says Wallace. That recent development was inspired by one incarcerated woman, from Florida's Lowell Correctional Institution and Annex, who took it upon herself to lead herself through the training. Wallace was impressed: "She has a master's degree. She's very optimistic. She's older. Not a highly skilled dancer, which makes it even more interesting, but she has good insight."
Courtesy Dance To Be Free
Though Dance To Be Free has only been in prisons for four years, the program has already come full circle in several ways. Wallace has since sold her private studio but continues to offer Dance To Be Free to the general public at another studio in Boulder. When she's traveling to prisons across the country, she relies on a few of her formerly incarcerated students—now teachers—to substitute for her back in Colorado.
In addition to these relationships, Wallace tries to keep a close connection with other students who've left the prison system: "I'll say, 'Keep in touch—I can send you DVDs. Keep dancing. If you need a job recommendation or for me to talk to your parole officer, I will."
And the choreography, which the women create with Wallace's guidance during class, has taken on a life of its own: In Mississippi, they're dancing to Macklemore's "Glorious" for the warden. In Florida, the women perform for visiting family members. In Nebraska, they're learning Mississippi's choreography. "That's the beauty of it. They dance each other's movement." Finally, when she returns to teach at the studio in Boulder, she'll say, "This is from Virginia. This is from Florida. From Hawaii."
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."