Freedom is a state of mind, and around 30 women at the South Dakota Women’s Prison in the Solemn Public Safety Center feel a little bit more free after earning a certificate, Wednesday, Jan. 8, in Pierre to help teach dancing and other communal engagement skills to their sister inmates.
Dance to Be Free (DTBF) is a non-profit program that has visited now 16 women’s prisons in nine states, but its growing, said founder Lucy Wallace.
“We expand it by teaching the women how to teach each other,” Wallace said. “I went at first thinking I’ll just teach dance, and then I thought, oh let’s make this into a teacher training formula. So now we’ve been to 15 prisons. This is our 15th, in our ninth state.”
The program is more predominant in the south, Wallace said, because she feels there is less programming for women in prisons to better themselves, but she notes the south, and South Dakota too, have had little in the past. Hopefully that is changing.
“It’s growing in a way that we’re now hiring women who were in prison, who are now out, to do my job,” Wallace said.
Women’s Prison Warden Wanda Markland is all for it. Markland learned about DTBF from her mentor, Vicki Freeman in the Department of Corrections in Tennessee. Freeman told her about the program, so Markland looked it up online.
“I want this at my prison,” Markland said.
Wallace is based out of Colorado, but her company will send her, or another qualified trainer, to any prison for $6,000. Being a program that can self-perpetuate itself though the passing down of healing skills means it is positive wherever it goes.
“Normal is a setting on a washing machine,” Wallace said. “Who’s normal?”
Wallace had help facilitating the program with her colleague Chloe Weber, also from Colorado.
“It’s amazing,” Weber said about working with the women. “It’s really humbling, and they teach me a lot about myself, about humanity.”
Wallace leads from the front, while Weber moves around opposite her to help out any of the women. Both, though, move through and around quite a bit. It is a dance class after all.
At first it was difficult to get back in once they were out, Wallace said about women coming back to help. They were in the system, on parole or supervision and they couldn’t do it. Then one prison saw the logic of allowing someone now out to throw a line back to help those inside.
“A prison let us bring in a formally incarcerated woman, and that particular woman was in Nebraska, so she is going to go back to the prison she was in,” Wallace said. “So now she is ‘working’ for the state. She’s a volunteer. It’s really a big part of the growth.”
Wallace just wants to help. She wants to show the women how to heal themselves. Prison can be a little tedious and stagnant. The exercise helps the women heal too.
“I think seeing how much joy it brings these women who may not have experienced anything at all like this before,” Weber said is her favorite thing.
“Look at their faces, right,” Wallace said. “It’s not easy, but it’s kind of the most-easy route to help women heal from trauma. Because we can talk about it, we can sit around a table and say I want to think positive thoughts. But is you actually physically moving to the positive thoughts, the song that was saying ‘never give up, I found my way,’ and you are physically doing that movement. It’s so profoundly healing for the brain.”
Dancing is the easy part, it’s keeping the lights on, so going out to teach dance is feasible, that is the hard part, she said.
“It’s obviously very heavy,” Wallace said what she believes to be the hardest thing about teaching. “Very depressing sometimes. Honestly, the hardest part is running the non-profit.”
At the end of the three-day program, Wallace handed all of the women in the class their certificates for participating and completing the course. Now, their job is to teach coping, communication and dance skills to their peers and fellow inmates, so they can start healing too.