In 2018, DTBF has danced with incarcerated women from across the Pacific to the heart of the South! We have met all sorts of characters and had our myths busted right and left. From Hawaii to Mississippi I was scared about how I would be treated or welcomed in such diverse areas of the country.
I had no idea what to expect when we arrived at the maximum security women’s prison on Oahu (Women’s Community Correctional Center – WCCC) to offer a teacher training. Being a blonde, white woman from a privileged background, I was nervous about working with women from a culture that has been overtaken by white people that now vacation in their paradise.
But, the women were sweet and not very vocal about racial tensions at their facility. WCCC is falling apart due to little funding from the state but they have a good amount of programming. It took months to get our program scheduled because one of the inmates said our classes (shipped in advance on DVDs) were not high enough. I was all, “Whaaaa??!” When asked later about her comment, Emerald said that she thought they were “Weird.” I love the honesty!
Larson Medina, the Recreation Director of WCCC teased me about being so persistent that the staff would try to hand off my repeated phone calls to him. He went on to be such a playful and awesome fan!
We were blown away by Larson’s heartfelt understanding of our mission! He listened to all of the women’s interviews while we danced and came into the gym to share the impact he was witnessing. Wow!
In March, we expanded to Maui’s jail where we worked with women serving much shorter sentences primarily for meth related convictions. Meth is an epidemic on the Hawaiian Islands as many of our students shared. One woman was a successful journalist with no criminal background that fell into the grips of meth when she went through a painful divorce. Another woman came from a conservative, middle class family in Sacramento that ended up homeless on Maui for years.
There is no stereotype to land on when working with incarcerated women. Anytime I have a thought I think is solid like, “Prison is rock bottom” or “Meth addicts look like ‘x'” – I am challenged over and over again. For many women, prison has saved their lives and has actually been a place of healing. And, for many it is traumatic and something to just get through.
In early May we expanded to Mississippi which was a surreal time capsule – from the diners in Jackson, to Confederate Flag day still being celebrated, to the prison being located in a former Motel. I quickly dropped the “Gs” off of any word ending in “ing” and loved being called Ms. Lucy. The airport was out of the 70’s, the energy is thick and like the women I’ve met in prison, I couldn’t land on any thought about what Mississippi is about … a gay man told me that he lived in the Bay Area for 17 years and chose to move back to MS because people didn’t know how to, “Visit” – said with such a southern accent I could barely stand it! What a beautiful notion – we all need to visit with each other more. He also explained that a huge amount of Jews ended up in the Delta after WW II???
And, there is a shadow to MS that can’t be ignored and in many ways the South feels like a different country. Jackson is riddled with pot holes and everybody knows everybody – from the judges to the lobbyists!
Like Hawaii, I was nervous again as Katherine (our Southern Regional Director – also a blonde) and I pulled up to this former Motel in a huge black BMW, in a super poor area of Jackson. I was cringing as we signed in at the front desk and needed some dancing to be free myself!
We were 22 in a small room where I brought Beyonce’s song “Formation” to be choreographed. Formation is a celebration of southern black culture that always felt awkward to dance to in Boulder. I anticipated a more diverse group in our teacher training, only once again to be surprised by my assumptions as we walked into a room of 18 white women and 3 black women. I was worried about cultural appropriation and needed to just deal with my own mind instead of projecting it onto our students!
Names like, Cleta, Clifford, Bishop and Dickey were tossed around as we met a slew of local reporters, journalists, lobbyists, legislators and writers. Our largest donor Tom, is from Jackson and met us down there to celebrate our 10th prison falling in his hometown! Tom is in his early 70’s with a thick accent who believes in DTBF because of the simplicity and affordability of the program. He loves to say, “You’re a cheap date Lucy!”
During a party that was thrown for us by a lovely friend of Tom’s, this man came over to me and said, “How did you hear about this party? Every liberal from Jackson is here.” Surreal times indeed.
It’s funny, and not, to see how I can be imprisoned by my own mind throughout this journey and need to learn from the mission of DTBF. I personally need to give it over to the dance – because DANCE is the great equalizer and our students teach ME that in every state and facility we visit. These women don’t care about my New York neuroticism! They just want to dance and are beyond grateful that we have taken the time to dance with a neglected population.
One woman in MS came up to me after class with tears in her eyes and asked, “What made you do this?” She was an older, heavy woman who may not go onto teach but she received something in the dance no matter the outcome.
The expression: “Those who can’t do, teach” is not lost on me!
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