Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lifelines on 57: Controlled Movement

A friend told me that we artists do not do enough to work in the unpleasant areas, that we only want to be around positive things and people, that uncomfortable places or working with people who suffered injustices is not our preference. She said we critique the system, "but don't participate in the mechanisms which address those issues head on, in a direct, programmatic way." I think the operative word here is "way," seeing as the artist's "way" is her art and making that art accessible to all. I find that people who don't self-identify as artists dissociate themselves from the artistic process, as if it is just another responsibility that can be delegated to the "Artist". However, as ALL people are artists and have essential, creative power, it is extremely problematic when even just one person decides his artistic gift is not really "art" and therefore expendable. What are these gifts? Therein lies the joy of life, discovering, embracing and owning your art. Everyone is different and everyone's art is essential to all of our lives.

So anyway, I want to share an excerpt of a book I am working on about dancing with women who are in recovery from drug abuse and who are behind bars. The movement, like all art, and life, is present everywhere. I'm reminded of the scripture about "the least of these," and that to share your art with people who have forgotten that they are beautiful and sacred and remind them that their contributions are vital to all humanity is to truly recognize the God in everyone.

The women clap when we come on the unit. There are a few seconds of hesitation as old eyes remember us and new eyes wonder at us. Who are they and what do they have to say to me, some of them peer. I am happy to see them. Relieved we made it out of the jam-packed elevator that was temporarily out of contact with the control room. Our session today is coinciding with the GED graduation so the elevator traffic is more than usual. I was squished against the hips and chests of sisters, girlfriends and mothers holding the babies of inmates. The prison escorts were exasperated that the control room hadn’t acknowledged our calls from the elevator. I didn’t know what was happening even though my claustrophobic tendencies quickly informed me that the amount of breathable oxygen would be expiring soon if we didn’t get off of that elevator. My mind raced through the possibilities of freedom and space and the ability to run! That’s when I remembered that I forfeited all of these liberties when I walked through the first set of sliding bars.

Controlled movement. That is the type of electronically-manipulated security system installed at Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). Every five to ten feet there’s another door. You push a button and the omniscient control room approves the request to let you move on to the next door. Today though, there’s a problem.
“You see how these doors opening and closing,” a guard behind thick glass questions one of the prison administrators attempting to pass through the same interval that we are.
“Yes, what about it?” She, like the rest of us, doesn’t understand why he won’t just let us all through. Everyone has proper identification or is with an escort if they have a visitor’s badge.
“We ain’t controlling that,” he replies like a person tired of telling a bad joke.
“Well who is? Is this some kind of game y’all playing?”
“No, the doors is opening and closing on they own!” He throws his hands up from behind the glass. We look at the other guards who are perplexed at their inability to control the doors from their computers. Hmmm, I can feel everyone collectively pondering, if the doors are opening at will, can people escape? The likelihood of that doesn’t seem that high, considering the tell-tale prison uniforms and the amount of guards stationed at every exit. But wait, we gasp in unison, if the doors can close at will, could we get stuck in here!
I steer my thoughts back to the best-possible scenario: the guards fix the glitch so that we can move under their supervision again. Control makes us feel that we’re safe, freedom oftentimes being such a risk. Every moment inside the jail is ripe with contradiction. Here I am ready to teach women about moving their bodies freely, and yet it’s all taking place inside a locked-down facility. I always wonder at my work here, what is this experience of teaching freedom through moving the body when that very dancing body is simultaneously restricted to the confines of a gray and burgundy cage?

The doors decide that we can pass through to the long hallway that takes us to the elevators. A crowd of family members is already waiting to get onto an elevator where an alarm is ringing.
“Don’t get on that one!” A CTF employee yells, sticking her head out of the next elevator and motioning for all of us to jump on. “That bells means it’s stuck.” After five eternal minutes in the elevator, we finally reach our women.
Today’s theme: “POWER—My power lies within me.” Last week's session was twice as many as the week before that. Today there are even more new faces. Another duality floats into my consciousness. As a dance facilitator, I love having more people to dance with. However, the presence of more women on this unit also means that there are more people in jail than last time. I flip back and forth through my thoughts. On the one hand, I’d rather be dancing with these women on their own terms, outside in the free world. And still, my intuition tells me, I’d probably wouldn’t have crossed paths with these women if they weren’t in a structured, substance abuse recovery program.