Undanced Dances During a Pandemic

Undanced Dances During a Pandemic

From inside a California prison come choreographies of the mind.

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Santa Monica, Calif.

My solo starts off with my arms out-stretched towards the sky, trying to touch the rafters, stretching on tip-toe, reaching, head up to the sky.

Terry Sakamoto Jr., is describing a dance he calls “The Mountain.” He wrote the choreography from his bunk while in Covid lockdown last spring at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security men’s prison located in Norco, Calif., about 65 miles from my home.

Before March 2020, when the state prison system shut down all programming and visitation due to the coronavirus, Terry was among the folks inside the prison with whom I had the remarkable opportunity to dance, make dance, and converse every Monday night for years. The project, called Dancing Through Prison Walls, began in December of 2016. The work took many forms, whether teaching credit-bearing college courses or Rehabilitative Achievement Credit workshops, collaborating on choreographies, bringing in guest artists, or simply spending hours dancing with folks inside the prison gym.

We were still dancing when the work was abruptly ended. I was given 48 hours to send in guidance as to how we might continue to dance together, apart. It was a rich challenge. I ended up writing prompts for ways that dance might be imagined/written, without actually moving. Although not a common way of making dances, there is a history of this kind of work in the dance world. And it turns out that writing dance is actually a liberating way of making dances. There are no financial, gravitational, technical, or locational limitations. Anything is possible.

Almost immediately, the dancers began sending out their choreographies for these undanced dances.

From “‘Safety and Security’: Two Nations’ Borders,” by Terry Sakamoto:

She’s slowly backing out of the driveway into the still quiet streets of Mexico, heading toward a day filled with check-points, questions, searches, and persons’ attitudes sometimes empty of human kindness and empathy.

From “I Wait,” by Carlos Rivas:

I start to feel the power of my dance as I empty out my thoughts and feelings on the dance floor. I always feel free when I dance.

From “Arm Leg Leg Arm Head,” by Landon Reynolds:

I see people gliding on water as they move fluidly across the landscape

From “From In Here,” by Yusef Lamont Pierce:

Slide the top hand over the bottom palm from wrist to fingertips. You’re imitating the act of sliding bills off the top of a stack. This dance is called “The Hittem’ Where it Hurt$!”

More than a choreographic residency, for me the project has been a commitment to learning from and with folks inside; to making work grounded in their stories and ideas; to examining mass incarceration, its deeply racist roots grounded in the legacy of slavery, and the prison industrial complex. Prison abolition has become my North Star in the work, what gives the work context and location.

Last fall I began the process of embodying the dances to share them with the “free world.” Highlighting six, written between March and May by Brandon Alexander, Richie Martinez, Landon Reynolds, and Sakamoto, I entrusted them to some dear dance colleagues, who had joined me in dancing inside the prison over the years. Bernard Brown, Jay Carlon, Irvin Gonzalez, Kenji Igus, Bri Mims, and Tom Tsai are steeped in hip hop, tap, breaking, performance art, Quebradita, spoken word, Bhutto, and contemporary dance forms. In these dances, movement is accompanied by the resonant narration of formerly incarcerated movers and organizers with whom I have worked inside: Marc Antoni Charcas, Ernst Fenelon Jr., and Romarilyn Ralston.

One choreographer, Richie Martinez, was released last summer during the prison’s largest Covid wave, so, to our joy, he is now narrating and performing “Richie’s Disappearing Acts”:

I close my eyes and I’m somewhere else.

He calls his latest dance, written in 2021, “Richie’s Reappearing Acts.”

I have been overwhelmed by all of this profoundly personal yet wildly radical work. We still can’t dance in the prison, but people inside continue to send out their undanced dances, and they are always astonishing to receive. Meanwhile, the embodied work, dubbed Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic, has been performed publicly. It is currently part of the City of Santa Monica’s Art of Recovery project, examining the school-to-prison nexus. A film of the dance and a conversation with the artists will be presented virtually at the 18th Street Arts Center on April 16.

Conversations among the artists have highlighted the multiple realities of mass incarceration: the imprisoned loved ones not previously spoken of, the difficulty in getting parole during Covid, the restrictions that make it impossible for people on parole to see children in other counties, the unexpected in-home police inspections even many years after parole ends.

From “Internal Battle: Negative and Positive,” by Brandon Alexander:

Every move I make, every transition, every expression is reflecting the inner conflict within me.

In December, Sming Sming Books published Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic. The book is a sort of message in a bottle (or in an envelope, so to speak), sent from people who are so profoundly invisibilized on the inside, to live in plain sight in people’s living rooms, altars, desks, kitchen tables on the outside.

From “Mapping a Journey to Visit Me,” by Landon Reynolds:

As the journey descends into Southern California with the clear skies and sunny weather, the dance transforms to a more relaxed style. A lot of open gestures which allow the sun to shine down on the body as if one is sunbathing.

Reading dances allows us to imagine them, much as abolitionists strive to reimagine society. Embodying them mirrors the act of bringing deep, well-grounded imaginings for justice into the streets. Writing and dancing itself, Richie Martinez once said, is an exercise in creating some “freedom time.” Back in 2018 a dancer in Norco, named Kamasi, told us, “You may not be able to get us out of here immediately, but you can take us out of here.” We are doing our best.


Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.

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