You too might have sat in a kind of stunned silence if you were told you could have the opportunity of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) teaching you dance, and not only that, you would be putting on a public performance. And that the performance was in six weeks. That’s six hours of rehearsal.
But twenty women at Arohata Women’s Prison have risen to this exciting challenge. Now in their third week (and hour) of rehearsals, the women are seeing fantastic results in dance and also in their own development.
Melanie Canton, the Principle Advisor for Rehabilitation at Arohata and Rimutaka Prison explains how this joint initiative between Corrections and the RNZB hopes to enhance the prisoners’ confidence, their communication skills and ability to work with others.
“It’s not just about dance, it’s about what dance invokes. Movement contributes to health and wellbeing, and it’s very inspiring for the ladies,” she says.
“They’re moving, they’re engaging, and they’re very motivated to come to these classes. They’re working as a team. [Normally] a lot of them are quite quiet and sometimes isolate themselves. So, the fact that they are communicating and engaging I think that’s a really big step in where we are heading with a lot of our ladies.”
With the Christmas concert fast approaching, it’s the job of RNZB Dance Educator Pagan Dorgan to inspire, motivate and choreograph the women up to performance.
“They’re really responsive and receptive,” she says. “In the class we go in and do a warm-up, and then I’ll do a couple of things travelling across the space, and last week and this week we’ve started learning the dance that they’re going to be performing in the show.
“They are doing amazingly well. The area of the prison that we are running the workshops in is like an old school hall or a gym, so it’s actually a great space, and the atmosphere in there is really great - but that might be because we’re all having a nice time!”
What is also inspiring to Dorgan is seeing progress in areas other than dance.
“In the first week it was clear to me that some of the ladies had done some dance, but a lot of them wouldn’t have had an idea of what was happening; what the structure was going to be, and what was expected. But the second week was really interesting. Some of the ladies, who I can tell might have been a little more insecure than the others, actually came to the front. This for me – well, job done.”
Involvement in education and outreach initiatives such as the RNZB project is an important part of the rehabilitative process for the women at Arohata Prison according to Melanie Canton.
“Our working parties, for example, they get to go out and learn new skills doing different work. That could be gardening, that could be horticulture, that could be catering. And then you’ve got education, you’ve got our computer suites. And within that we are asking: what works best for our learners? In this instance, it’s movement and dance.”
But it is the freedom through expression in the arts and dance programs at the prison that is particularly effective in building the self-motivation, insight and confidence that a lot of these women at the prison have lost, or indeed never possessed.
Pagan Dorgan, who has taught dance in schools, workshops, and studios all over New Zealand, from adults and youth offenders to toddlers and children, brings valuable insight into how confidence is central to dance.
“In the dance industry there is a lot about confidence because you know your body – and that that gives you a confidence a lot of people don’t have. And if you’ve never had that in your life or you’ve never had that opportunity to know how that feels it’s actually quite an amazing thing. I love what I do and if you love it enough hopefully it fizzes out of you and into the people around you.”
The Inside-Out Arohata Christmas concert is on the 7th and 8th December, at the Arohata Prison in Tawa and is open to the public. Tickets are $25 with proceeds going to Women’s Refuge and Zonta Mana, and can be bought by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org before December 2nd.