The Language of Dance: Building Bridges in Juvenile Hall

“I walk into the gym the same way every week at 8:55am. I place one foot lightly and cautiously in front of the other as though I might offset the frequency or disturb the order of the place if I walk with greater weight. I’m nervously rehearing the movements and mistakes from last class as [students] file in. I don’t want to mess up again. But inevitably the next couple of hours find me shuffling clumsily, trying to keep up, on the rubber floor – there are new things to learn this time.”

Written by a Stanford University student, this quote references a dance class set in an unlikely classroom – juvenile hall. He is reflecting on the Dance in Prisons class taught by Professor Janice Ross. Dance in Prisons takes students out of their typical classroom environment, placing them instead at San Mateo Juvenile Hall’s Hillcrest School. The class brings Stanford students together with incarcerated students, using the common language of dance to build bridges of understanding.

The student continues: “This was my experience in San Mateo Juvenile Hall, learning to dance with two left feet – but I don’t mean hip-hop. The movements I was rehearsing were the body language of bonding, the mistakes I was watching out for were ways of failing to create a positive space, and the stage fright I never overcame was the fear of not connecting. I wholeheartedly attest to the power of art in the justice system at the end of these ten weeks, but the art I felt we offered was not the choreographed hip-hop, but rather these movements we exchanged when choreography paused – the dancing between the lines. This class has taught me more about the world and myself in ten weeks than I would otherwise gain from four years of my core course list. As I continue exploring my personal and professional future, these are the lessons I will carry forward.”

Photo credit: www.annehamersky.com

Photo credit: www.annehamersky.com

During the course, students from a range of majors – including engineering, education, and computer science – are introduced first-hand to the power of art as a tool for transformation. A safe space is created in which Stanford and Hillcrest students can share the experience of dance as a means of self-expression and communication.

The Stanford students who participate in the class are also given the opportunity to consider the growing inequality gap present in Silicon Valley that keeps incarcerated youth in a cycle of poverty. One student reflected: “It is my hope that as an employee of Google, I can continue to think about and work with the students of Hillcrest. These students are struggling to stay afloat in Google’s backyard, and we as a company have a duty to think about, project, and support them in being able to make the right decisions. I hope to continue working with this population to build critical hope.”

The class has an impact on the incarcerated students as well. Hillcrest teachers, staff, and probation officers all report that the behavior of the youth improves during the course, because the penalty for misbehaving is being kept out of dance class.

Photo credit: www.annehamersky.com

Photo credit: www.annehamersky.com

Inspired by this grassroots effort to effect change, PVF has provided discretionary grants to Professor Ross to help fund the Dance in Prisons class. These funds have helped pay for fingerprinting and clearances as well as provided a stipend for a hip-hop teacher. The generosity of our donors allows us to give small, immediate response discretionary funds to community projects like this.

Professor Ross recently told us: Over the fifteen years that I had the pleasure of offering the dance in prison class at Stanford I have continued to be amazed at just how forcefully dance can serve as a blueprint for thinking about, and rehearsing, social insights and transformation. Each year through the remarkable students who take this class, and the extraordinary support of Bill Somerville and Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, we have the opportunity to see how dance creates a special zone where it is possible to work on and redefine the boundaries of art, politics and life.”

PVF is proud to find and fund initiatives like the Dance in Prisons class that have an immeasurable impact in our community.

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