Choreographed inside prison walls : Freedom. Inmates embrace dance, and trust, as some break away from confining norms.

Think of men in prison and you probably don't think of dancing. But that's what some at the California Institution for Men in Chino 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, 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, arts programs in prison 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 masculinity behavior.

Amie Dowling, a choreographer and professor at the University of San Francisco with more than 20 years' experience in working 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.

The World Students Society thanks author Brian Seibert.


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