The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Spring 2002
By bringing excluded individuals back into the frame of human reference, positive change can be given a fair chance. Once assumptions and judgements are dropped, negative public perceptions can begin to be reversed and in turn, those in prison can begin to positively engage with others. Here Suz Broughton talks about the impact of a radical dance performance in HMP Holloway
I believe I can achieve what you can see with your own two eyes. Myself as a team with other girls, we have all learnt what real dancing is all about. I am not talking about jumping up and down, or jigging your head to a heavy metal band. I am speaking about moving, using your mind and feeling the rhythm, not in the music but in [the] body itself.` (1)

Holloway prison is the largest female prison in Great Britain holding up to 532 women including those on remand, those convicted, young offenders, mothers and babies, pregnant women, Category A prisoners and those with serious mental or emotional disturbances. 'There's a lot of women walking around this building that are really destroyed... whether it's a drug problem they've got, their children or they're looking at long sentences.` (2)

Holloway's catchment area extends up to Leicestershire, Staffordshire, round to Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Norfolk and includes the Isle of Wight. The prison deals with all the major ports of entry into this country resulting in 30 per cent of its population being foreign nationals. With the average length of stay being 28 days, and a turnover of 4,000 prisoners each year, a five-week dance project in such an environment was always going to present some challenges to Dance United.

This company is co-directed by Andrew Coggins, Royston Maldoom and Mags Byrne. One of its key aims is to push the boundaries of where and with whom dance can have a value. With no auditioning or selection, a sea of unfamiliar faces greeted us in the gym on the first morning. Fortunately, both Royston and I had been to Holloway before, at the invitation of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, so knew what to expect in terms of the tricky energy and atmosphere of the prison. Nevertheless, it was a daunting moment, standing in front of such a crowd where little connection can be made as no names or individuals are yet known. On one level, I did not feel any more intimidated than I would have done in front of any other group of strangers. However, initially I was certainly more on edge as I had been trained to carry keys in order that we could save time and get around the prison without relying on an officer to open every door and gate. Teaching with a bulky set of keys in a pouch on your hip can really make you feel like a target - especially when you are told during the training how to respond to any attacks you may encounter if someone lunges for the keys or if you are kidnapped! There were also a couple of women who had fixed on me for the first few days, wanting to 'do me' (was I supposed to be flattered or threatened). I kept a wide berth and for once during this project was grateful for the instability of anyone's stay in the prison as they were shipped out early on!

The music chosen for this project was Gorecki's Symphony No 3, a hauntingly beautiful movement that cut through the strangely frenetic atmosphere of the prison environment. There is a real dichotomy of energy within Holloway. On the one hand, there is constant noise and tension as everyone watches out for themselves and yet, there is also a lethargy, which is hard to rise above, as women are herded around, forever queuing to be counted or body checked. On hearing that we were using classical music, there was a general assumption we would be teaching ballet - their natural reaction was 'oh no we're all going to have to wear them funny little skirts with them tights and prance about.`(3)

Predicting this response, I saw the role of the warm-up as a bridge between their reservations and what Royston and I knew to be their potential. By immediately focusing them on their own bodies through simple exercises, teaching them skills for focus and projection and using a wide variety of music throughout, it served to distract them from their doubts and began the process of re-awakening their bodies to a different understanding. Royston also worked quickly, ensuring that by the end of the first session, they could understand and dance the first few movement phrases - immediately giving them a sense of achievement and fulfilment.

'It gives you a little bit of self worth again, a little bit of dignity. It feels like you can do something - because so much is stripped away from you so you end up so self -loathing - to do something like this builds your confidence.' (4) By focusing on the partner-work and group dynamic within the dance, which was non-issue based, any negative self-expectations or personal details were gradually dissolved. Everyone was treated equally as a professional and as an individual with a right to own and express the strength of their emotions through the subtleties of the movement.

Holloway is an exceptionally difficult remand centre to work in largely due to its size. We could never rely on who would turn up to each rehearsal. This was due to such factors as legal or social visits, court hearings, job duties, not being let out of their room or because they were about to transfer to another prison. Coupled with this were the shutdowns that occurred when there were simply not enough staff for the prison to operate safely. Also, due to extensive periods of time being locked up, sometimes from 4.15 pm until the next morning, and longer over the weekends, we were frequently moved to other rooms so that the gym could be used for aerobics. This constantly unpredictable situation was demanding to deal with when working to a tight schedule. Royston and I became proficient at adapting to it though and realised that if we went in expecting our quality time with the dancers to be compromised - the disruption was somehow more bearable.

However, we were indebted to the support from the governor, David Lancaster, the gym staff and Jacqui Harvey, head of education. Within education Jim McShane co-ordinated 60 women, to devise a poem on the subject of what defined a woman. This was then read and recorded by some of our dancers for the start of the performance. In the crafts classes, Kate Simpson co-ordinated a very committed group of women to create costumes and stunning backdrops, which helped to utterly transform the space for performance. For all of us involved though, this was a difficult process as none of us were able to leave the group that we were working with and fully involve each other in what was occurring. A lot of trust and snatched moments at the end of the day was all that was possible to ensure that we were all aiming for a similar goal.

Largely due to the constant transfer of women to other prisons to serve their sentences, our group had now settled to 12 dancers and they were becoming increasingly committed and proud of what they were achieving (we lost some dancers after a full four weeks of rehearsals - both frustrating and distressing for everyone). Those who remained had created some extraordinary bonds, and as they had all been given an original copy of the music, we heard they were practising the moves in their rooms if they were locked up or with each other if they had free association. Other women not involved in the project were curious and learning sections of the piece. In a classic role reversal, even some of the prison officers in the gym were being taught the warm-up exercises and movements by the women!

Their confidence and courage to gently expose their emotions through the dance was both glorious and tough for all involved. A striking example was Claudette who had a certain reputation to uphold in the prison but who simply chose to try something new and be seen in a different light: 'Since I've been dancing, I have come out a lot calmer 'cos it does relax me - it takes away all my aggression. I feel like I'm letting something out of me, you know letting that ugly thing out inside me. I just want to laugh all the time ... and I'm not usually like that at all, believe me. I rip sinks off my wall, in my cell. I've stopped doing that.' (5)

This shift in her perspective and energy was noticed by her prison officer who commented: 'Over the last few weeks, we have seen a remarkable change in her. In her attitude, in the way that she feels about herself, she has become very positive about herself. This dance project has given her something she is desperately happy about doing. If it can help women like Claudette to get a sense of purpose, to feel that they are worth something - I think it will have a great effect on stopping the re-offending because a lot of these women go out with no purpose, with no respect for themselves and they re-offend.' (6)

The day of the performance, above everything else, was therefore a real celebration of this change in the women. The gym had also been transformed with backdrops, costumes, lighting by Peter Ayres and a stunning film projection of the women in rehearsal, shot by Katrina Mcpherson. The atmosphere was electric with an audience of 50 invited guests and over 250 inmates including the mother and baby unit. I was fortunate enough to dance with the women. The raw response of the audience as they spontaneously clapped and cheered each move that they saw as beautiful or difficult to achieve was so refreshing to experience. For many of the women watching and performing, this was their first taste of theatre.

The performance was a real testimony to the women's courage and, as Sir David Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of Prisons commented: 'The value of this sort of thing is that it's an achievement for each and every one of them - and with that achievement, you can then turn that into other achievements.' (7)

... And that is the key. A project that focuses purely on the artform can have far-reaching effects, which may serve to initiate change in an individual and act as a gentle reminder of their true value. The strength gained from having gone through the rehearsal and performance process is now acknowledged and recognised by both themselves and others. This could potentially be one of the keys to releasing old patterns for those who are persistent offenders as it helps to give confidence and self-esteem. It is a hard sense to hold on to though, which is precisely why there needs to be as many opportunities as possible given to people in prison.

'Here is a wonderful opportunity to give them the chance to experience and feel all the things that they never had the opportunity to experience before they came in. When women come in to this situation, they should be exposed to the arts, to all the best that life has to offer them so that they can see themselves in a new way' (8)

Angus McLewin co-directs the Unit for Arts and Offenders, promoting the role of arts in prisons. He believes that such work is a Human Rights issue: 'I think people should have access to all the creative arts. If you're on a sentence for any length of time, for me, the punishment is the fact that you're removed from society and the quality of life in prison should be enhanced.? (9) If this work can be linked to basic skills, on which there is much focus now, then great ... But if such projects are unable to meet every part of the criteria, the powerful influence that such work can have within the process of shifting self-image and self expectation must not be brushed aside.

During our work in Holloway, I took in two photographers, Angela Taylor and Nick Gurney and am now in the process of working to mount a public exhibition and compile a book, which will provide a compelling insight into the lives of this group of women. My aim with this is to remind ourselves that by bringing excluded individuals back into the frame of human reference; positive change can at least be given a fair chance. Once assumptions and judgements are dropped, negative public perceptions of those in prisons can begin to be reversed and in turn, those in prison can begin to positively engage with others.

Since the end of that project I have stayed in touch with nearly all the women. As a result, and with some further recommendations by Sir David Ramsbotham, Dance United is currently working on further projects in prisons. For those women who danced in Symphony, future projects will aim to develop their skills whilst providing further insight into the impact of dance and the arts in prisons. I am aiming to link some of these projects with local dance agencies now so that the network widens and provides a point of contact for those women who wish to continue dancing.

'I feel much more alive. I feel more like me actually, ... I've recognised more of me than I have done in a long time. And I'm dealing with things better and for me it's positive and I'm going to get out of here.` (10)

Suz Broughton. Contact +44 (0)20 7737 0927 or email

I. 5. Claudette - inmate
2. Nicky - inmate
3. Alison - inmate
4. 10. Wendy - inmate
6. McDonald, prison officer
7. Sir David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of Prisons
8. Maldoom, R.
9. McLewin, A.

Dance United
P0 Box 27780
London E5 0JW

The Unit for Arts and Offenders Angus McLewin and Pauline Gladstone, Neville House, 90-91 Northgate, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 lEA
Contact +44 (0) 7974 640741 Email

The content of this site is proprietary to the Foundation for Community Dance and any access to this site or the use of any content made by any person is expressly subject to these terms:

Unauthorised copying of any material (including artwork) on this site and the reproduction, storage, transmission or the distribution of any content, either in whole or in part and in any medium or format, without the prior written consent of the Foundation for Community Dance and, where appropriate, the author or artist, is not permitted.

Please read our website terms & conditions by clicking here

Animated: Spring 2002