Inside a remarkable dance program in a California prison

Inside a remarkable dance program in a California prison | ltc-a

Dancing is being vulnerable, feeling free. To trust the people around you.

It is perhaps the art form least likely to occur in a prison, an environment designed around confinement and structure.

Brian Seibert, a dance critic for The New York Times, recently wrote about a burgeoning inmate dance program at the California Institution for Men in Chino, about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Brian spent months reporting on the history and development of the program, and watched as students staged a graduation ceremony for their class, performing a dance, he writes, that allowed « men to be seen and to see themselves in a different way ».

After a funding drought in the 2000s, arts programs in California prisons have recently expanded, with programs in all state facilities since 2017. The growth of these efforts reflects a broader national movement away from punishment and towards the rehabilitation of inmates.

The program Brian focused on, Embodied Narrative Healing, is unusual even within that changing picture: It is not state-funded, but run by volunteers and supported by private donations. And it’s about dance, which is rarer than visual arts, theater, or music in prison arts programs.

« It’s such an anomaly, and really an accident, that there’s a dance program, » Brian told me. « What all the kids have told me is that in their world, touching other people isn’t allowed, or it’s allowed but it’s violent. »

That means even simple things like confidence exercises, a mainstay of high school drama classes, get « deep within this environment, » she said.

Even more amazing, the Chino program is taught by Dimitri Chamblas, an acclaimed French choreographer. At an event in Los Angeles, he happened to meet Bidhan Chandra Roy, an English professor at Cal State in Los Angeles who had started an organization that offered courses in restorative justice in Southern California prisons.

Chamblas was immediately fascinated by working with prisoners, Brian told me, and them by him.

It is unusual for someone of Chamblas’ stature to teach a prison art program. He at least once stopped in the middle of directing a fashion video in Paris and returned to Los Angeles so as not to miss the weekly class in prison.

« Chamblas knows nothing about prisons or prison teaching, and obviously there’s a whole industry of people who specialize in that and all kinds of scholarships, » Brian said. « He just goes in there with this big heart and his postmodern ideas of him, and they respond. »

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When Bruce Richardson saw a man collapse in a parking lot in Los Gatos, he immediately began performing CPR as a passerby called 911. The man survived, underwent quadruple bypass surgery and is now recovering. Bay Area News Group reports.

For his efforts, Richardson was awarded the Red Cross Certificate for Extraordinary Personal Actions last month. The honor was especially significant for Richardson, who watched his father die of a heart attack when he was 15.

« That left a big mark on me, » she said.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. —Soumya

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Briana Scalia and Geordon Wollner contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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