Free Your Mind: Reflections on Teaching Dance to Youth in the Criminal Justice System

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If I had to put our experience with the dance company into words, I would say it was nothing short of a freeing, exciting, and interactive experience. Our time with ysdt provided the opportunity for staff and participants to get to know each other in a fresh and creative way. The workshops improved team building skills and had a profound impact on the confidence and self esteem of our young people —Arnold Adams, Program Coordinator for the Staten Island Youth Justice Center

Our time with the young men at SIYJC was amazing; a reminder of how we all have the ability to dream, fantasize, and tell stories. When we arrived on the first day of the workshops, we had no idea what to expect. In the past we had worked with all-female youth groups- for example at the Office for Family and Child Services in Staten Island where we ran our Personal Narrative Workshops in the summer of 2011- and we thought a group of young men might be harder to engage or manage; turns out, we were completely wrong. Thanks in part to an energized and engaged staff, we came upon a big group of young men ready for some dance, some theater, and a whole lot of creativity. We started with an easy movement and number game to ease everyone into the space. Immediately I could sense the positive spirit of the group. Zoe, Kristin, and I (YSDT’s teaching artists) had devised several contingency plans in case certain exercises didn’t work out (i.e, if we heard crickets instead of excitement). Funny enough, we never had to make use of them because the youth went full force into everything we gave them. Most of the young men had never danced or acted before, and what we were asking them to do required a good amount of courage, confidence and a sense of humor.

Seeing these young men open up to another part of themselves- to witness themselves and one another in a new light- was a reminder of the way art can reach and transform people. It was an honor to be able to bring this experience to people who don’t typically have access to live performance art- even when in some ways it is just an arm’s length away in NYC.

In a world where there is so much discrepancy of wealth, freedom and opportunity, my hope was that these workshops would provide a safe environment where we could all dream beyond the box of our own lives, and realize our own most outrageous imaginings. Whether we were on safari; exploratory astronauts; courageous pilots who like to eat snacks; rhythmic ninjas; or pals, hanging with Beyonce, the scenes may have been make-believe, but the empowerment- and just plain ole’ fun- were real. I can’t wait to do it again.Samar

I was absolutely unsure about how our Staten Island workshops would go. On the ferry ride from Manhattan, I felt nervous and insecure about my ability to lead a group of teenagers as I’ve only recently become comfortable speaking in public.  I feared the stereotypical judgmental attitudes people associate with teens and I worried they might not respond to our tasks. So, to counter my own hesitancy, I decided to let go of my expectations and focus on one goal. Have fun and hopefully our students will too.

Frankly, our students were amazing.  We started each session with games that tuned physical and mental responsiveness and then got them moving as a group, circled up so there was no front or back of the room.  There was shyness in the form of uncertainty but there was also truly sweet curiosity. Together, we built sketches or scenarios based on a few set rules like “must end in a circle.” It was in a word, hilarious.  I learned what it means to “mack, ” we took trips to outer space and met Beyonce. Our imaginations took us on adventures and quite literally, came to life through performance.

Not only does a creative process offer exercise to our imaginations, it offers an escape from our every day activities and responsibilities. At the very least, our students had some fun in class, but I bet they also smile at the thought of meeting Beyonce, as we did, in a classroom one day last December.  —Kristin

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