Dances for Solidarity reaches out to incarcerated individuals

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Photo// Sarai Nissan

HOSTED BY LIGHTHOUSE WRITERS WORKSHOP

On March 12, Dances for Solidarity-Denver invited the Denver community to participate in their second letter-writing workshop of the month. Together, the group—based out of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop—writes to people in solitary confinement. The participants come together every two weeks to mail letters with a list of engaging movements to incarcerated individuals.

Dances for Solidarity is a national initiative that uses letter writing to share collaborative dance with people in solitary confinement. Originally based out of New York, the project was created by multimedia dance artist Sarah Dahnke. The movement list was created in collaboration with other dancers, artists, and community members, some of whom teach in prison or know someone in prison.

The groups participate with a uniform list of gestures that act as alternative exercises for incarcerated populations; the hope is that while the dance is being performed inside a prison, its performer knows someone on the outside might be performing it at the same time. The groups mail these dance steps along with a short letter to a diverse mixture of individuals who are in incarceration facilities and in solitary confinement. The goal of this project is to let these individuals know that there are other people who are in their same position and that they are not alone.

“Letters can be a lifeline,” Patrycja Humienik, a CU Denver graduate student, said. “We share a list of 10 written movements with people in solitary confinement which we send along with a personal pen pal-style letter.”

In the grotto of Lighthouse waits a long table set up with reading material ranging from novels on prison experiences to Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow to the poetry of the people who are incarcerated. In the corner, another table offers a pile of stamps and a stack of envelopes. The workshop begins with a distribution of the newest pen pal letters from the prison as well as a newcomer welcome, allowing them to pick a name off of a list to hopefully be their consistent correspondent. A key component to the project is the consistency of receiving a letter from the same individual.

The first 20 minutes of each meeting are spent reading the letters of those held in solitary confinement. Each writer takes this time to write out a thoughtful and sincere response and express themselves as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing. The group then takes a moment to perform the Dance for Solidarity, a performance that accounts for little tweaks here and there that imprisoned pen pals have made along the way. This month, one inmate made the suggestion of letting out a primal scream after step nine, which was thoughtfully obliged by the Lighthouse group.

Humienik is the organizer of the Denver chapter of Dances for Solidarity. In addition to coordinating the biweekly meetings, Humienik teaches on campus and in prison, as well as at CU Denver’s Writing Center.

“As a dancer, performance artist, and writer interested in issues of mass incarceration—and particularly horrified by the practice of solitary confinement—finding out about Sarah Dahnke’s project, Dances for Solidarity, was nothing short of serendipitous,” Humienik said. “It was late summer 2015 when I read about her project sharing dance through letter-writing with people in solitary confinement, and I contacted her about getting involved. It also turned out a Colorado dancer friend of mine who had moved out to New York had attended a meeting.

“When it came up that I could start the Denver chapter, and I said yes, I did not know what I was getting into—the level of commitment, both in terms of time and emotional investment. Nothing could have prepared me for the mix of beauty, terror, sadness, creativity, despair, pain, and hope of the letters we receive, or the time commitment of organizing an initiative that is often hard to explain, or all the creative possibilities of this project,” said Humienik. “I am so glad I said yes, and so grateful that people have shown up and continue to show up to get involved.”

With every workshop and with every letter written, the list of choreography begins to grow. Each pen pal adds a movement, be it the individual writing to the person incarcerated or vice versa, though the focus is on the needs of the pen pal in solitary confinement.

The individuals who receive these letters are invited to perform these dance moves as many times as they may need to, with the hopes of being implemented when they are feeling anxious, stressed, irritable, or simply need anything to keep themselves occupied.

“There is solidarity in the fact that someone in another cell, or someone on the outside could be doing the dance at the same time,” Humienik said. “We’ve received a lot of affirming and interesting responses from our pen pals. Our pen pals on the inside will often add a movement to the list, so we have a growing list of movements from people in solitary confinement all over the country.”

Dances for Solidarity will have ongoing opportunities for live engagement outside of the prison system, according to the Dances for Solidarity website, which includes events where the people who attend are invited to “dance in solidarity” with those who are incarcerated. This project intends to raise awareness around the often grim conditions that linger inside of the nation’s prison system and most penitentiaries. While this goal is more humanitarian, the project merges performance and art with social justice efforts.

“Writing letters with people who are incarcerated or volunteering in prisons can open our eyes to the humanness and complexity of people on the inside who are often demonized and made into caricatures by the media,” Huminiek said. “A person’s criminal record is with them for the rest of their life, even after they have done their time, and so it is important we learn about the experiences of people in prison and the barriers they face to reentering our communities.”

“The US is the world’s leader in incarceration, and the data shows that jails and prisons are not providing rehabilitation and are not keeping communities safe,” Humienik said. “Practices like solitary confinement, which itself is overused and under regulated, do not work [to prevent recidivism] and have serious, damaging mental health consequences. Anyone who cares about issues of human rights, social justice, and racial justice should be concerned with our prison system.”

Dances for Solidarity is a transitory and philosophical collaborative performance project that creates a space for emotional introspection and reflection on the existence of those who have been ostensibly locked up and had the keys thrown away.

“The New York group put on a show in October 2016 co-choreographed in collaboration with pen pals that featured their artwork,” Humienik said. “The Denver group is also working on a collaborative performance project with our pen pals and working on a small publication to get the writing of our pen pals out as well. In addition to the dance, people on the inside and the outside form a relationship through letter-writing.”

The next Dances for Solidarity meeting will be held on Sunday, April 2 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. There are many ways to help the movement, from attending the meetings to writing letters to helping plan an event. The Denver chapter welcomes students, artists, educators, activists, and anyone who has been affected by the judicial system of mass incarceration to help the organization share voices from the inside.

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