But it wasn’t long before the group began to laugh and joke with each other as they learned and practiced the jazz-based dance steps to a Janet Jackson song.
Outreach programs like Ballet West’s Forward Steps are bringing the arts to Utah’s correctional facilities and treatment centers, aiming to help the people there to find healthy modes of self-expression.
'The power of creativity'
The Forward Steps program came about as a result of Ballet West’s efforts to find more ways to reach out to the community and make dance relevant and accessible to all people, according to director of education and outreach Peter Christie.
In the case of Forward Steps, dancing empowers participants to take control of their situations if only for an hour of movement and provides an opportunity for them to connect with other people in the class, Christie said.
“Even though you may lose everything else in your life — your home, your house, your car, your family — you still have your body,” Christie said.
Ballet West does not charge Forward Steps facilities or participants for classes — which are ongoing and offered weekly — as the program’s funding comes from donations, according to Christie.
Forward Steps assistant director and instructor Shelly Cordova said her goal with the program is to help participants feel better about life and get them involved in something healthy and positive.
“I just want them to feel loved and cared for,” Cordova said.
The Utah Division of Arts and Museums Arts Education program similarly sends artists into correctional and treatment facilities. According to program manager Jean Irwin, funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and funds designated for arts for underserved and underrepresented populations allow for the group to offer the programs, which vary from one-time classes to courses that span several weeks.
“Our (Arts Education) program highly values this work,” Irwin said. “The Division of Arts and Museums believes in redemption and second chances.”
Irwin believes bringing the arts to those in these facilities is a good investment.
“When we consider the tax burden to house one person in jail or prison, it is by far more cost efficient to invest in activities that foster healing and productive futures if individuals don't return to prison,” Irwin said.
Donna Pence, a full-time visual art teacher at East High School, is one of the artists the Arts Education program invited to teach painting, ceramics and crafts at Atherton.
“The women were enthusiastic, and it was fun to teach to such an engaged group,” Pence said of her experience. “I felt the power of creativity transcending the bondage of their situation and real connections being forged between the women.”
Mary Wells, a visual artist in residence with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, also visited Atherton to teach the women how to make a leather-covered journal.
“I believe that the arts are very important for people that are in correctional facilities,” Wells said. “The ladies were easy to work with, they were relaxed, they spoke of their families. It was a very positive experience for them.”
The difference the arts make
Cordova said Forward Steps dance classes help to give participants a break from the judgment and sad, heavy energy they often experience.
“They’re just people,” Cordova said. “They’ve been in trouble and they’re trying really, really hard, and they need to be treated like normal people.”
For Betty Nelson, a Forward Steps participant at Atherton — where women can stay from seven days to 120 days, depending on their individual needs, according to their website — the class helps to boost her self-esteem.
“It helps you realize what you could be, that there’s more out there than being on the streets,” Nelson said. “It’s a good way to get out of your head.”
The class also functions as a memory-building and physical therapy opportunity for Nelson, who is recovering from injuries sustained when she was hit by a car.
“I said if I could dance again, I would dance, and … I dance now,” Nelson said. “I dance on the street, walking to the bus stop, I dance.”
In this way, the classes are also good for the brain in addition to the physical exercise they provide, Cordova said.
“For them to have to deduce from what you’re teaching them to follow, count, do it with the music, learn the step, get it in their body, it’s just super,” Cordova said. “The mind-body connection is huge.”
The Ballet West instructor said she also teaches Forward Steps participants how they can use exercise as a way to deal with anger and frustration instead of lashing out or making bad decisions.
“I try to encourage them to use the situps and the pushups and the different conditioning we do as a coping mechanism,” Cordova said.
What really helps the women is that they are getting a new and entirely different positive experience through the arts than what they are accustomed to, according to Martene Mackie, director of both Atherton and Orange Street community centers.
“Most if not all of them have been involved with some kind of substance abuse,” Mackie said. “What we’re hoping while they’re in our program is that they can … realize that they don’t have to have these substances in their lives to be happy, that they can have other things that they enjoy, and hopefully that will follow them out into the community.”
The instructors who teach art at these correctional and treatment facilities also serve as role models for the women there, according to Mackie.
“They come in with a different role. They’re not there as the correctional officer,” Mackie said. “There strictly is somebody to help them and appreciate them and teach them.”3 comments on this story
The classes are also fulfilling for the teachers, according to Cordova.
“You have to be open and flexible and up for whatever happens, (but) we usually come out of there just laughing and going, ‘That was great,’” Cordova said. “My team loves it.”
Alyssa Bryan said participating in the Forward Steps dance class at Atherton energizes her and gives her something to look forward to every week.
“I just really love it and the women that come and teach us,” Bryan said. “They just have a lot of energy and relate with us and we have a lot of fun.”