Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'
Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.
June 2nd, 2016watch now
by Vanessa Cook
First of all as a group, these men were not afraid of taking physical risks, which allowed a very high level of flying to be achieved.
The second explanation I offer is that the men were immensely physically strong and were not afraid of working physically hard. Although they were used to working their bodies in a different way than we work [as dancers], physical work of some kind was familiar to them and so they applied themselves to our concentrated work.
Thirdly; they were literally a captive audience! They often expressed how much they enjoyed the long days of training because of the escapism it provided them from the repetitiveness of their average daily prison schedules. This was apparent in the way they enthusiastically met us each morning, even though they were often stiff from the demands of the day before.
I Feel Normal
One participant commented: "This course has been the first time I've not felt like I'm doing my sentence in all the years I've been 'inside'. I feel normal." (I am aware that there are different possible responses to this. It is my opinion however, that if these men are to come out of prison, expected to be normal in society why not allow them practise at feeling normal in new contexts whilst they're still in prison?)
Suffice to say, having fewer choices of ways to spend their time possibly predisposed them to engaging with us to a greater degree than if they had not been a 'captive audience'.
Fourth; the amount of time we spent with this group was copious compared to other community groups where we normally spend a couple of two hour sessions with an adult community group . With this group we had a series of five full day residencies as well as some two week residencies. Simply, the windows of time spent together allowed a large exposure time in which to develop skills.
Finally, the men were in a TC where they were undergoing therapy. They applied for a place in a TC where they knew they would have their behaviours and thinking patterns challenged. The TC provides a new experience and from that background of facing new challenges, they joined our workshops. Being in an environment full of new challenges perhaps predisposed the residents to being prepared for the challenge we provided.
I started this article with the intention of explaining why the project was so rewarding for me. Part of the satisfaction was derived from watching the mens' achievements but there were also benefits that were unique to the dancers.
A Refreshing Change
We worked really hard all day in a way that our normal touring schedule doesn't allow. Whilst pre-supposing hard work as a benefit may seem back-to-front, the feeling of euphoria from working hard was a reward in itself. It was a refreshing change from workshops feeling too physically easy.
During the course of the project we learnt new skills and developed as dancers as we worked alongside the men. The floor was laid with mats for each workshop, which meant we could try technically difficult skills with the benefit of having a softer floor on which to land. The men were more interested in learning big physical moves before they became interested in smaller, more subtle, dance movement. Consequently our abilities in 'big moves' increased as we practised them alongside the residents.
We also had the opportunity of putting our techniques to the test. When teaching contact to youth or physically smaller participants, it's sometimes easy to rely on muscular strength to achieve a lift or support, rather than using more efficient techniques (ie, hinging correctly or using momentum).
The residents with whom we worked were all significantly bigger than we were, (some approximately double my weight). To try to use muscular strength to support them would have been ineffective and futile. Therefore, working with men who had a much larger mass than we had, caused us to use effective techniques. This was of particular benefit to the male dancers who rarely dance with or support people bigger than they are.
My male colleagues also thoroughly enjoyed being able to fly and being lifted by the residents, because being upside-down on the residents' shoulders lifted them much further from the ground than I can ever lift them! It was good for them to practise flying high. We were all practising new skills in an environment of mutual learning. Which leads me to my final reason....
Because we were learning side-by-side, we were able to practise a teaching style that grew from co-operation rather than from a didactic basis. Good teaching skills are needed no more keenly than in a prison setting. It was necessary to pitch the workshop and pace the group at an appropriate level and the company were also aware of the tone and frequency of our verbal feedback.
These factors helped create the type of teaching environment we believed would be most effective. Motionhouse's dancers gave each other feedback so that the environment was never one of 'us versus them'. Rather, we were all learning at the same time.
Student and Teacher
Everyone, residents included, shifted between the role of being a student and a teacher within the partnerships in which the skills were practised. Didactic teaching presupposes the facilitators know more than other participants. The role of 'director' is borne from that premise.
But the beauty of contact is that regardless of how much knowledge and experience a dancer may have, every new partnership is a place of learning for both parties. Therefore, the environment of mutual learning wasn't artificial, it grew naturally from the content of the workshops, making an authoritarian approach to teaching not only undesirable but also impossible to sustain. Observing the effectiveness of the style of teaching we established in prison was an excellent reminder of good teaching skills in general.
There is much more I could say about the latent therapeutic benefits I observed, the subtle pro-social changes in individuals' behaviour, the developments of friendships within the group and the increase in residents' confidence, but I am not in a position to accurately quantify these observations.
As mentioned before, I am not a therapist so my observations will remain my own. But I am able to comment on how the men interacted with the dance we taught, and have aimed to describe exactly that. I also started by giving one of my reasons for agreeing to participate in this project. I was intrigued to see whether contact as a form of dance could be beneficial to participants in a prison setting. And I now know the answer. Contact can indeed be implemented with positive outcomes, even in prison.