Dance in Prison

Posted on Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Students dancing in prison

Learning differently – this concept has taken a very different turn for 5 students of the Faculty of Social Sciences who recently visited the former Ottawa Jail to interpret an original dance created by Claire Jenny, dancer and choreographer, and Sylvie Frigon, a Criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.

A long-time collaboration

Through their collaboration they reveal a new and unique perspective on confinement. Professor Sylvie Frigon’s (Criminology) research has explored many projects and has focused particular attention on status accorded to women in the field of criminal justice. Claire Jenny is a contemporary dancer, co-founder of the Point-Virgule dance company for which she has been the Artistic Director of the major part of creative projects since 1998.

Through movement and body position Jenny has explored the concept of body in dance and beginning in 2004, she became very interested in  Professor Frigon’s research on self-harm in prison. The collaboration between criminologist and choreographer led to the publication of the book Chairs incarcérés, une exploration de la dance en prison (Exploration of Dance in Prison) in 2009, which was followed by the creation of different research initiatives and choreography created by Jenny in various detention centers in France and Quebec.

Dance in prison

For 10 years, events were organized in prisons with men and women (in France and Quebec), where prisoners and artists came together to create amazing performances. These workshops were designed to help incarcerated women reconnect with their bodies. In many prisons, freedom of movement is restricted; art and dance have helped many women to reconnect with themselves and their bodies. In their 2009 book, the authors explain that the vast majority of women in prison have a past of sexual abuse, incest and/or domestic violence. Therefore, dancing, in addition to the creation of movement, allows them to revaluate the perception they have of themselves. In one instance for example, a male dancer waltzed with a incarcerated woman. Afterwards, the prisoner confided that no man had ever treated her so well. Another woman confided that it was the first time she felt beautiful in her life. These exercises allowed imprisoned women to regain control of their bodies that had so often been betrayed.

The experience with students

Since 2005, Professor Frigon has invited her students in one of her graduate classes to interpret the reality of prison life through different artistic platforms: painting, sculpture, poetry, theater and even horticulture. This year, her students headed to the former Ottawa Jail to create a choreographed dance with her long-time collaborator, Claire Jenny. The purpose of this activity was not for the students to have a prison experience or participate in “prison tourism”, but rather to be a creative experience. Students needed to design dance choreography that would help them understand and express confinement.

Early on, Professor Frigon felt resistance and insecurity among the participants. Even if it was not a real prison, the shock of seeing bars, cells and the “death corridor” brought up anxiety. Being filmed (for the purpose of a video) added to their insecurities. Professor Frigon was however able to reassure them and after the first rehearsal, she was happy to see that the students had relaxed. By touching the pavement, taking in the smells, hearing the gates close and being monitored by camera, students were able to understand how dance could indeed help incarcerated women.

Overall, the exercise was a success and a video montage of the performance has been released. Professor Frigon hopes that this kind of workshop, complimenting a more traditional version of teaching, will have a greater impact on students and, ultimately, on the general public and will help lift the veil of the realities of prison life.

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