In Lucy’s words …
Who inspires me – My board president Gayle Nosal – she lives to give. She is very cautious about serving from a place of ego – her intentions feel so clean to me. Her integrity is impeccable.
Best advice: Follow your fire instead of your ‘should.’
The brightly lit gym is a whirl of movement as a handful of women dance to the pounding beat. Their faces are lost in rapture, their movements are free and wild. They are swept up in the power and beauty of dance, their everyday lives forgotten as they bound and move with the music.
But these are no ordinary dancers. For these women are murderers. They are imprisoned for long-term or life sentences in America. Their dance studio is in a maximum security prison surrounded by fences topped with rolls of barbed wire.
Yet, for now at least, the dancers are not hardened criminals but simply women – feminine, vulnerable, powerful and free.
Leading the class is Lucy Wallace – a dance instructor from Boulder Colorado who runs the dance studio Alchemy of Movement. As a white middle-class woman, Lucy never dreamed she’d be spending her time with such criminals. Yet the Dance 2 Be Free classes she volunteers to teach in Denver’s maximum security women’s prison have not only transformed some of its inmates, but also given new dimension to Lucy’s personal quest for meaning and purpose. The prisoners have helped Lucy discover the power of being truly vulnerable, the depth of relationships that can emerge when you express yourself freely, and the beauty that is revealed when you deal with people without judgement.
But these are no ordinary dancers. For these women are murderers.
Targeting the underprivileged
Though Lucy loved running her dance studio Alchemy of Movement, the studio never earned big money and Lucy yearned for something more. She considered making at least part of the studio a not-for-profit and offering classes not only to the privileged kids and adults who already attended, but also to the less fortunate.
As she mulled over the idea an acquaintance suggested she run dance classes for prisoners. “I just said ‘ok’,” Lucy says. “It was so immediate and I actually can be a very doubtful, mental, fearful person when making decisions. But I didn’t have any of that chatter. I just knew it was the right thing to do.”
With nothing but a vague idea of what she’d like to achieve, Lucy started cold calling prisons. She felt scared of actually entering the prisons, so thought she’d start by sending them her dance DVD and seeing how it progressed. But, after visiting the Denver prison for volunteer training sessions, she had her assumptions shattered.
“I thought it was going to be really dirty, I thought it was going to smell bad,” she recalls. “I thought the women were going to be hostile, and angry and depressed. But I was blown away – it was so normal. It felt just like a rehab clinic. It was clean, people were polite, it was brightly lit, it seemed very safe actually. I didn’t know what to make of it – I didn’t feel like I was in a prison.”
A spiritual experience
Despite the reassurances, Lucy remained apprehensive about meeting the prisoners. But as Lucy began dancing in the first dance lesson she overheard a Samoan woman, who’d been jailed for murder, remark, “Oh this is spiritual.” Lucy knew she was onto something. “I just thought ‘oh my god she gets it’,” Lucy says.
Given the success of the first session, Lucy began returning to the prison for weekly dance lessons, attracting between 12 and 50 women. Of the attendees, five women were particularly taken with the dance classes – and these ladies signed up for dance teacher instruction, which Lucy also volunteers to teach weekly. It’s in this class, she says, that she’s seen real transformations and forged powerful bonds with women she would have once regarded with fear.
… she’s seen real transformations and forged powerful bonds with women she would have once regarded with fear.
“What we do on [in the standard Sunday classes] is beautiful because it’s a dance class with a bunch of women in a very grim, depressing, challenging, scary place,” Lucy says. “But on the Tuesday night [dance teacher training] classes we’re really getting to know them more.”
As well as dance and dance teaching instruction, the women also write journal assignments, conduct breathing exercises and concentrate on breaking out of habitual movements and actions – both in and outside the dance classes.
Lucy, who has a masters in psychology, says it’s almost therapy, without the need to delve into trauma or lie upon a phycologist’s coach. “There’s a big piece around trauma about moving the body in a free, expressive, cathartic way,” Lucy says. “But I don’t have to say we’re going to deal with trauma today. I feel like an undercover therapist.”
What does Lucy gain from spending her time with murderers? She says she has benefited immensely in having her preconceptions shattered, in learning to see people as they are, without judgement, and in gaining inspiration from the courage of the women she teaches.
“When I teach and say ‘play with freedom of movement’ and I’m at my class in Boulder, which is filled with privileged, sometimes entitled people, there’s this lack of depth,” Lucy says. “But I go into prison and say something like ‘feel free’ and they are coming from an experience of knowing what it’s like to not have their freedom. So there’s no pretence, there’s no vanity, there’s no entitlement, there’s no image consciousness – they’re all wearing the same thing – there’s no competition, there’s an immediacy, it’s so real. They’ve lost it all, they’ve nothing to lose. They are so expressive, so vulnerable. It’s really powerful. When my volunteers and I walk away it’s like, ‘what just happened?’ It’s almost like a peak experience.”
… there’s no pretence, there’s no vanity, there’s no entitlement.
When Lucy began the dance classes she was unaware of what crimes her students had committed. She convinced herself that they were probably jailed for drug offences. But when a journalist conducted a story on the dance program Lucy learned the true reason for their imprisonment – and for most of them it was murder. She then Googled each woman who was participating in her teacher training and discovered the horror of their crimes.
“It didn’t change anything,” Lucy says. “I don’t know why that is. It wasn’t even something that I had to wrestle with myself. Some of them did some intense stuff, and I thought it was going to haunt me, and that I’d really judge them but I just don’t. Maybe because I’d already danced with them for months, and I’d already had this bond, or maybe the compassion was always in place. But it’s not even something I have to think about. I don’t think ‘oh my god you’re a murderer’. I think ‘something happened to you, you had a dark night of the soul, or you had so much trauma in your past, that you had no resources’. And they are so grateful for that. They always say ‘thank you for seeing us as women, not as criminals’.”
“They always say thank you for seeing us as women, not as criminals.”
Living her purpose
The prisoners are also reporting personal transformations. They say they feel less guarded, more connected, even freer. They laugh a lot, they cry. They share their fears and hopes for the future.
Given the success of the program, Lucy is in negotiations to start similar dance classes at another nearby prison and dreams of one day such instruction being available to prisoners across the country.
Though she volunteers, she says what she gains in personal satisfaction helps make up for the lack of income. “To work with an underprivileged population is so rewarding,” she says. “It’s like the best use of my time that I’ve ever felt. When I’m in there I think there’s nothing else I could be doing on this planet that could be more beneficial. It’s so much bigger than me.”
“It’s so much bigger than me.”