This piece by Amii LeGendre first appeared in Contact Quarterly Vol. 37 No. 1 Winter/Spring 2012 and on the Earthdance blog in August 2012. Amii returned to the Velocity community in July 2013 to teach Intro to Contact Improvisation at the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation 2013.
I sweated a lot the first day I taught dance at the prison. The prisoners sweated a lot. Prison is not a place that invites you to be embodied in a risky way, to sweat together, especially men and women. Men and woman. It’s the small print in the contract that one implicitly signs when entering a men’s prison as a woman—you will not have a body. Your body will be as unexpressive, conservative, packaged, normative, and erased as possible.
And then we sweat.
Thirteen guys showed up for class. I worked damn hard to get each guy there. In many ways, I’ve been working for the last four years to inculcate an interest in them in taking a dance class. I’ve tried to sell it as a fun time, a fitness class, a historically relevant context for other studies, an exotic road to self discovery, a return to the BBoy days, a chance to buck expectation, not your run-of-the-mill prison class.
Just get your ass in there.
It’s not clear what I can and can’t do in the prison. Can I touch? Can I wriggle my spine? Can I sing? Can we laugh? How loud can we be? Can I reveal my vigor, my raucous and provocative nature? How do I bring out my full teacher persona when I’m being surveilled?
What exactly are they surveilling?
The men have very developed notions of attention and focus, of discipline and subservience. This is going to be a challenging line to walk—how to not disturb what these men value and the sense they have of order and status. But rather, to instigate invention, ownership, fun, and sidestepping “discipline” in order to make sense of the impulses that lie underneath discipline.
I am the only one who takes my socks off.
Most are reluctant to take off their shoes; no one takes off their socks. Desmond leaves his sneakers on, then leaves a few hunks of dirt in the middle of the floor from his treads—right in Abdullah’s space. I use my hands to sweep it up instinctively. I take the role of the space steward, making their humble temple worthy of their dancing. They find this kind of offensive. “Whoa. Let’s just get a broom. What are you doing? Don’t crouch down like that and use your hands to wipe up dirt from the bottom of some guy’s sneaker!”
I like the notion of me making clean space for them. Mostly, I am not willing to indulge in their real or faux chivalrous act, which can mean waiting for 15 minutes for them while they find the broom for me. They are wily about finding ways not to dance, of slipping out, of making the teacher’s plan backfire. So, I do it. I clean the space myself. Desmond takes his shoes off now.
We started with breath. Lots of counts, lots of breathing. I gave them handles to hold on to the material, to get connected to coordination, some modern dance vocabulary, ideas about learning and how we learn, and questions about courage and group identity. I also tried to exhaust them. I tried to show off some. I yelled some. I had them do some African dance. We did some hip hop. I pulled many of my best tricks. I exhausted myself.
We have a live musician who is terrific. We are joined by two incarcerated musicians who have major chops. They pour out live infernal percussion and guitar for us to dance to. We make a world, in this little music room. The heat is on like 120 degrees. It’s like Bikram African modern.
At first I liked sweating, now we can’t stop.
I have not felt the gesture of kindness embedded in the act of teaching so poignantly before. I go off on my little trip about it. Sometimes I blow myself away, noticing the little surrender we actually do, and how, in the presence of such heat, in this tiny room with music blasting, in this prison, it feels like real witness.
I adore Jabbar. He must be 45 or so, the only one in the class, I think, older than me. Almost a foot taller than me, he takes the middle of our tiny classroom with grace and ease and really has fun with his body flying through space. He’s the guy in class that does the most teaching for me—the kind of teaching I can’t do myself because I can’t be an incarcerated black man with no previous training in dance, who attacks the class with a gifted blend of perspective, ease (that might have looked like courage at one point but is too infinitely available to him to actively be courage anymore), and sense of humor that I am trying to introduce and enforce. Jabbar just does it. He just gets it—real fun and curiosity and who cares.
Desmond’s pumped iron for 23 years. He won’t do a plié without grimacing like every move is a set of squat thrusts. I see that this is a learned habit—to move with effort, to make a face to demonstrate and support WORK. Is it feminine to move with ease? Too graceful? I can’t get under this. I wonder how this information I am sharing about moving with efficiency will sit with him. He’s attached to working hard and he won’t stop grimacing.
I pour language out all over them.
I try to douse them and the classroom with the ideas that I want to shape, to pour enough interesting concepts and considerations in the room that all fear and stubbornness will dissipate. I want to work with some of Deborah Hay’s work—My body needs stillness. My body needs rest. My body likes puzzles. My friend Juliette Mapp gave me the words that guided one of Deborah’s processes of late:What if where I am is what I need? I thought about using this phrase in class as a seed for moving through whatever we were doing, and then thought, am I asking them to consider that prison is what they need? I didn’t use it.
Many of the writings they do for me are about their mothers. They tell stories of how their mothers introduced them to dance. I ask them to speak the names of their mothers, to put that in the room. I realize that I would do this kind of thing in any other teaching environment, but I wonder if doing it in the prison is appropriate, if I am opening wounds by bringing family into the room. These family members perhaps contributed to trauma, or at least suffered their own pain at the crimes and incarcerations of their sons. We do it anyway. A few guys speak their mother’s name with pride, love. A few are reluctant. There was a lot of silence. We salsa, solo style, with their mothers’ names swirling in the air.
What do I do when they are whining and being chumps and don’t want to work?
Should I continue in the next class to articulate my interest in their moving from sensation and intrinsic curiosity more than from orders and demands? I am trying to undo something I’m not sure can be undone in this environment. I will leave at the end of the semester having picked at a structure like a scab that may be necessary for their sense of well-being. I’m not sure what the right thing is—to provoke, disturb, open, permit, or to leave their adherence to top down structures alone.
The floor is totally ready and clean now by the time I get there. We begin almost right away, after appropriate schmoozing and stalling. Now when I walk in there is a raucous sound of drums pouring out the door as they each take turns on the drum kit while the Temple Cleaning takes place. They are beginning to own their space, to rely on our ritual.
Start lying on the floor. Do the “efficiency with the head” thing. We are doing it. We are lying down on the floor, in kind of an X. Hassan is into it. Desmond can barely stand it but he does it. KC closes his eyes and goes inward and it takes my breath away. This often happens for me—I love watching people with their eyes closed, preparing, resting. I am grateful and appreciative in a bigger way. I have a small sense of what it has taken to find something like real rest, and to find it so far down. I read the second chunk of the Ruth Zaporah: “What if you experience first and name later?”
Eddie helps Hassan with the sha-say hop step.
Hassan is determined to get this thing; Eddie can do it in his sleep. No one takes their socks off. They go around like slipping fairies. Why the hell wouldn’t they want traction? What is it about barefeet that’s so taboo?
The music is really rocking. Kahlil and José have created a rhythm stew, crazy 3 and 5—complicated and terrific. Slide is rapping in the background when it’s not his turn to dance. I am overjoyed. He got it. He understood that he is invited to create impulsively, to let something flow through him.
We improvise on the weight shift phrase; I offer a score in which they can enter and exit as they want, change directions and change facings. One person has to remain, taking a solo. The score is not done till a soloist is left, playing or dancing. Slide is the soloist, soft and efficient, quiet and marking it. He’s in his socks so he can’t bear much friction; he goes for it anyway. It’s both beautiful and stunted, slippy trippy and at the same time effectively careful. He is embarrassed by the attention but he gets that he can’t back out.
We watch the film Dance: A Very Dangerous Pastime. They are blown away by Louise Le Cavalier—her androgynous presence, the natty way she goes about manifesting the same ballet as the long goddess woman from the previous ballet scene.
Slide declares that he doesn’t want to see or make work that doesn’t have content, a social heart.
More musicians than dancers today. They are a tired lot. There is this and that prison thing that makes them late. KC is hurt beyond pushing through the pain as he usually does. We dialogued about it in his journal—I was glad he opted to sit and watch. He was more attentive and supportive as an observer than as a participant. He has self-selected “big brother” as his role in the group: I love to watch his joy at watching the other men in the class. He is shyly smiling in the corner from their efforts, talent, willingness, and the shit they can’t do to save their lives. Only I can see his smile.
We did gesture phrases at the end. Good discussion on literal vs. abstract, behavioral vs. expressive. Each guy made two gestures: one for something behavioral that a family member does and one for an expressive gesture that holds or represents the energy or affect of this person. Hard stuff for them, we were rushing; they gave simple ideas, I was very touched. Eddie wouldn’t say who his family member was. His gesture was to pick his thumbnail with his ring fingernail loudly and repeatedly. It was grinding and funny; it was true. He didn’t have an expressive gesture; it was all he could do to come up with the behavioral one. He didn’t sign up for this class to do gestures about his family. He wants to dance.
Hassan finds out whether he’s released or not today.
He took the first 30 minutes of class then had to leave to find out whether he gets to go home or has to serve another two years in prison. It was excruciating to consider what he was thinking and feeling as we were dancing with him awaiting the decision that had already been made on behalf of his life.
We are going to talk about the Cynthia Novack material today—contact improvisation—so I begin in counterbalance, teaching them a bit of contact to fortify the later conversation. The whole class ended up being a rumination on surrender—to the ensemble, to the music, to gravity, to momentum, to each other. We swam in that for a while. I felt out there, on a Crazy Lady limb, even though I gave them one tiny piece at a time. I’m the Crazy Contact Lady!!! Abdullah actually said, “You embody these ideas.” He may not like the aesthetic of surrender to momentum, but he gets that it’s a set of ideas tethered to a whole philosophy of action in the world that I privilege. I worked with Desmond for most of the time. It was a lot to get him to trust that I could support him in counterbalance (though truth be told I barely could as he’s a humongous weightlifter). I suspected that it was actually almost insulting if I could support him—that might mean something suspicious about his masculinity. Why is he asking a woman to support him? Why would he want that? I’m not sure what was up for him but he stuck with it though I had to beg him to get up and try it a few more times.
I take a huge risk and show a DVD of my own work.
It engendered a nice talk about modernism vs. postmodernism. I want them to see Contact in action as well as a project deeply defined by postmodern urges. It was a lot for me to expose myself that way. Plus every dancer and all the audience members in the video were white.
I showed a Donald McKayle piece with 8 men from 1959—a modern work if there ever was one. Most of the guys loved it. They related to the shirts-off steamy muscularity, to the clear relationship to music, to the representational nature of a group of men being on a chain gang. Abdullah said, “Shit, I’d like my girlfriend to see me doing that. She’d go nuts.“ I loved the truth of that, that he speaks his truth always, and the beauty wrought from extraordinary effort that the McKayle piece betrays. I felt overwhelmed with depression for a moment as I left, feeling like I won’t be able to go further because I could never make a piece like that with them—even though it would resonate so deeply and be something well-organized, formal and representational that they could imagine sharing with their families and the general prison population. That work is not from my center. Tricky business, considering choreography in prison. It seems to me Slide likes something more postmodern in nature though he can’t name it yet.
Final projects happen.
The work was tentative and brittle and not nearly as powerful as the dancing and improvising that’s been going on in class in general. However, KC and Desmond worked beautifully together. KC really slowed down and worked Desmond into the small piece they made, which in the end had at most eight counts of unison material. But damn, they nailed those eight counts. As I watched them work, I was suddenly struck with fear that the whole thing would fail; I saw that the simple eye contact of minor collaboration like this was almost too intimate. I saw that Desmond deferred to KC’s history, talent, and seniority to make decisions on the structure. But I saw him negotiate for a few ideas, too. His eyes were flying around the joint, not sure where to land. They each took an improvised solo, supported by the other dancer in stillness, with his arms outstretched, facing boldly downstage. I almost drowned in pride when Desmond took his solo, KC standing there like a referee, a tree, a man, holding stark still so his partner’s dancing could be appreciated.
Abdullah and Eddie’s duet was terrific; they are both hilarious and talented and easy with the phrase. They made a goofy exit, one dragging the other off, somebody making a face. Just to be seen dancing and not necessarily making a story or a message is not what these two are interested in or feel comfortable with. Part of me goes “ARGH!” Why are you doing this narrative stuff again? Why are you hanging on to it?” Then I get a hold of my assumptions. I remember how good and important it is to entertain each other, to make each other laugh, to make sense and make light of making sense. Me and my big postmodern ideals. These men really entertain the hell out of me and that seems not beside the point.
I had them do writing assignments through the semester but they all come pouring in before the last deadline. One assignment was to write a reflection on any number of the articles and essays I included in the reader I put together. Desmond writes his on a Contact Quarterly article I included by Sox Sperry called Let Go My Fist: Witnessing Violence and Compassion in Men. He first writes that he wonders why I’d included it in the reader. Do I think all men in prison would relate to an article on male violence? Why do I think they need to read this? But he goes on to detail a shift, a discovery; he writes that despite having “processed the violence of my childhood” and its relationship to his being in prison, he newly identifies as an abuser and recognizes that although he’d not committed physically violent acts towards women, he’s been guilty of acts of emotional violence. He ends by sharing that this reading had prompted him to write a letter to his baby-mother and former girlfriend apologizing, for the first time in 23 years, for the pain he’d caused her.
The final two sessions were not mandatory, rather, my last effort at really sticking to intrinsic, curiosity-based learning: come if it interests you. Second to last day. I show dance films. Abdullah and Victor ask me when am I going to perform for them, “C’mon, it’s only fair, we performed for you.” I allow myself to get roped into performing on our last morning. I feel intimidated and a little horrified that I will inherently be too postmodern for them, that I’ll destroy the common ground we’ve built. But I also feel generous and open to finding a real connection through live performance. Am I man or mouse? Am I an improviser or not? Perform for them. I want to deeply rely on the fact that I understand what’s been going on, that I’ll see them seeing me, that I can tap into our common ground and amplify.
Take your shoes and socks off. Perform for them.
Last day. We’re not in our usual room. The syllabus agenda is to finish with a few last films and discuss. No one except Abdullah and Victor suspect I have prepared to perform. There are the usual trickle-inners associated with this new, windowed, watchable space. I dress in a dance-able not dance-able outfit. I can go either way, I am practicing being the ultimate, flexible, woman-performer-improviser. I can roll with anything.
Abdullah isn’t there. Victor is, but he doesn’t mention anything. I have invited other guys from another theatre group and they outnumber the guys from my class. I know and like the theatre guys but they haven’t been sweating in our little Bikram drum chamber with an efficient spine in search of embodiment with us for the whole semester.
There is a moment in which I will have to say, “Hey guys, I want to perform for you.” Or, “Okay, Abdullah twisted my arm. He talked me into it but even though he’s not here I’m beholden to my word.” I think maybe I’ll turn the chairs around myself and just start, take my shoes off and begin. I stressed over a score that had the right mix of playfulness, participation and resonance for hours.
But what if the guards walk by and see me doing this?
Maybe my costume is too flouncy even though I have pants underneath, and I’ll lose my standing as authority figure. What if it’s just too awkward to really engage because there’s been no hype or preamble to allow them to energetically prepare? What if they feel protective of ME, hoping that people who walk by aren’t thinking the wrong thing? What if dance doesn’t come out of corners and alleyways and prosaic spaces for them and I am suddenly rendered absurd? All these things are possible. I lose my groove.
Bottom line. Is there any way that I could pull this off without a measure of culturally invented coquettishness embedded in this offering? I basically have to argue for my place to perform for them now, to beg to dance for them. Or, at the very best, courageously say, “Who wants to watch me dance for you?” I am not anxious to adopt this stance in this setting. It doesn’t occur to me until now to say, “I want to dance for you.”
I don’t want to cop out. I decide that I’m not copping out, I’m reading the situation. I’m astutely reading it for safety and rightness. I don’t want to jeopardize the program, or my reputation. I don’t want to think of myself in terms of reputation. How can this gift not seem like a loss of authority?
I don’t do it. I introduce the film, I pop it in, we watch someone else, not me. We watch and talk right up to the end of the session. It’s great, we’re moved and inspired by the images and our own talking. There isn’t much chance for sentiment. The officer is here to escort me out.
This is how we back out.
This is how we separate, we part, we disengage, we cover ourselves back up a little. There is no more dance scheduled for the foreseeable future. We don’t know when we’ll work again. We all go into the brouhaha that is “movement”—that is to say, “civilians” leaving and prisoners moving to their cells to get counted.
We all have our shoes on.
Amii LeGendre has spent 20 years developing contact improvisation material within contemporary performance practice with an eye toward activism. After 15 years of living and collaborating in Seattle with Pat Graney among others, she now teaches dance at Bard College in New York.
Photo courtesy of the artist.