At women's prisons, dance project offers hope, transformation

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At women's prisons, dance project offers hope, transformation

Choreographer and arts educator Pat Graney speaks at Stanford about 'Keeping the Faith - The Prison Project'

by Kathryn Dickason on Monday, August 5, 2013 - 2:33pm

KTF participantsTo live in prison is “to be in a box," in the words of one woman inmate in Washington state. "You move when they tell you you can move, you eat when they tell you you can eat and what you can eat." To counteract the overwhelming experience of prison confinement, choreographer Pat Graney is teaching dance to women inmates.

Traditionally, we think of the prisoner and the dancer as inhabiting opposite ends of human existence. Just as the prisoner is confined, the dancer represents bodily freedom through movement.

In a recent presentation at Stanford, Graney discussed the empowering effects of dance on imprisoned women. In 1992, Graney initiated “Keeping the Faith – The Prison Project,” an arts-based educational residency program designed to enrich the lives of incarcerated women and girls. Graney is the Executive/Artistic Director of the Pat Graney Company, a Seattle-based modern dance ensemble. With workshops, lecture-demonstrations, and on-site performances in dance, visual arts, and creative writing, Keeping the Faith creates a personal space for voluntary participants, most of them untrained dancers, to cultivate what Graney calls a “disclosure of self.” 

Graney's program works most closely with the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Washington. Under Graney’s ambitious leadership, the project has also made artistic interventions in Japan, Ireland, and Germany.

Stanford professor Janice Ross, a dance historian who has researched Keeping the Faith and its positive effects on imprisoned women, praised Graney’s innovative choreography and her remarkable ability to “bring insider art outside.” 

From fallen to faithful

The name Keeping the Faith is not intended to promote religious virtue, as Graney emphasized. Rather, Graney hopes her project will help women generate and maintain faith in themselves. Prison can exert detrimental effects on one’s self-esteem, explained Graney.

KTF participantsTo counteract the restrictions inherent to the prison environment, Graney devises accessible exercises for inmates to recover self-expression. Initially she asks them to tell autobiographical stories through a series of gestures. Graney also integrates sign language into her classes.

“To emote or work together in a gestural way is very moving and very beautiful. There is a type of pride in learning a new language,” explained Graney. Dance, as a full-bodied extension of gesture, infuses participants with strength, intimacy, and beauty. 

In addition to dancing, participants in the program compose poetry. In a performative space, women are able to share private thoughts with people who could otherwise use it against them.

“Their dance became a forum for momentarily letting down the tough front needed for survival on the street and inside the prison,” noted Ross. For her, this aspect of Keeping the Faith is the most humanizing.

These personal exchanges can lead to a depth of experience, empathy, and transformation, says Graney, with profound effects on women’s confidence. Indeed, a documentary film on Keeping the Faith that Graney showed during her presentation indicates the program’s positive impact on women.

In the words of one interviewed participant, Keeping the Faith is “a chance. Instead of being dead I’m able to bring myself back to a person; I’m making a future of my life.”

To help realize promising futures, Graney recently instituted Keeping the Faith – Transitions Program, which facilitates ex-prisoners’ reintegration and success on “the outside.” 

"Keeping the Faith" is "a chance," says one interviewed participant. "Instead of being dead I'm able to bring myself back to a person; I'm making a future of my life."

Graney’s teaching philosophy embraces the primacy of presence: “You can be doing almost anything with people, as long as you’re present with them.” Espousing the Buddhist principles of compassion and patience, Graney believes that being able to listen and observe others without judgement constitutes a learning device that works very well in prison. 

Graney's project part of larger effort toward reintegrating prisoners into society

KTA participantsIn the documentary, Graney stressed the importance of reintegrating prisoners into society. “The sophistication and the maturity of our culture will ultimately be judged on how we treat segregated people and segregated populations. Do you want to rehabilitate and reintegrate someone into the culture or do you want to punish them?,” asked Graney.

In order to achieve integration, Graney argued, people need to develop the skills to reintegrate into a community. One of the key pedagogical aspects of her approach is that inmates “are treated normally. . .  I’m an artist, not a cop.”

Graney abandons the disciplinary posturing of prison authorities for disciplined movement – discipline as embodiment, rhythm, and sensibility of being. Ideally, the dancers will learn and administer self-discipline.

In its choreographic manifestations, such as a circle dance, danced discipline places women in a relational context. The social embeddedness of collective movement allows dancers to work on relationships, which, for Graney, is a healthy, natural human tendency that prison negates. Dance reestablishes a space for interaction, change, and achievement.

This socialization has an immediate relevance within a gendered environment, since, as Graney observes, women create familial units in prison. Graney's niece, filmmaker Elliat Graney-Saucke, explores this topic in her forthcoming documentary, Boys on the Inside. The film looks at
how queer individuals in incarcerated female institutions develop kinship systems.

In the end, Graney’s project goes beyond gender, as she utilizes dance’s expressive potential as a vehicle for reinstating human rights and effecting rehumanization. 


Pat Graney's presentation at Stanford was co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute, the Women’s Community Center, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. The Keeping the Faith documentary film, below, is by Sparkworks Media.

Patricia Graney

Patricia Graney is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Pat Graney Company, a Seattle-based modern dance company that tours nationally and internationally. Graney has received numerous artist fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artists Trust, the Washington State Arts Commission, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Most recently, she is the recipient of the Alpert Award and the Doris Duke Artists Award.

Kathryn Dickason

Kathryn Dickason is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies focusing on western medieval Christianity. Her interests include female mystics, liturgical rituals, and religious iconography. She is also a closet dance historian. Dickason is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.