Stepping Inside



When I was a little girl my mom gave me a doll’s house made by inmates. She told me their story with such dignity and lack of judgment that a need to set them free began to kindle in me.  The seed of my mission had been planted and is now moving through the 5Rhythms into any prison that will open its door to me.

For those of you who have never set foot in a prison, let me share the physical impact: ugly grey walls, security checks, crashing metal barred doors that open up to long corridors with more locked gates. It’s an edgy atmosphere, held down with hard eyes; permission for every action is needed. Every smile, every glimpse of human kindness is noted.

Getting into the prison system to teach the 5Rhythms has not been easy. Digging down to the bottom of my soul for some semblance of “institution speak” was the first challenge.  Once inside, moving through obstacles is part of my flow. There is no private space in a prison, not even for a movement session. I often end up in the gym creating barriers with mats to help the students feel contained.  And then there’s the inmates themselves, curious, checking me out. Fear is truly alive in the room. Most of the inmates don’t know each other that well, and the vibe of the session is pretty intimate, so extra care and attention is needed for them to feel safe. I use a lot of demonstration and leading to develop trust, and street culture music to get everyone juiced up and into the beat.

All in all, the staff are very supportive and let me get on with the lessons.

Teaching the 5Rhythms in prison allows me to feel a depth of human connection that I don’t experience anywhere else. Working with people who have fallen hard, survived the most appalling childhoods, been seriously wounded, and outcast from society has opened me to levels of humility I didn’t know existed in me. It has been a mirror for my own shadow side, my streetwise humor, and my own ability to survive against the odds. I don’t respect why they are in jail and I don’t justify why they are there, but I do care and will always see beyond someone’s actions right into their soul. This journey has allowed me to practice compassion and it has also taken me inside myself to real depths of despair, anger, joy, gratitude and peace. I am working with people whose “shit” is out in the open; their identity has been stripped and the niceness is gone. What a powerful and beautiful dance that is!

The 5Rhythms offers them a chance to express themselves, to loosen up, and de-stress. It allows them to move their bodies rigid from being locked up in small spaces, to feel their hearts again. They meet each other on common ground, and get a sense of their potential as they get to know themselves with more depth and honesty. It touches me how quickly they embrace the feeling of being supported without judgment. It makes me feel good to be able to offer an Art form that channels their energy positively and creatively with a transformative outcome.  They also get a rare good night’s sleep from all the physical and emotional release, as well as a long-forgotten sweet sense of wellbeing.

Some stories of inmates

One elderly grey-skinned woman who attended the sessions was so frail and asthmatic she needed a chair to sit down from time to time. Her movements were small and tight, awkward, extremely nervous, her eyes sunken into a frozen stare. After the third session she told me that the dance had saved her life and given back her spirit. She was on 24 hr suicide watch and for the first time since being in jail did not want to kill her self. She’s in for life so this is good news!

Another young inmate who was in for drug addiction and related offences expressed her feelings of being at peace for the first time in years after dancing the 5Rhythms.  She had never danced so freely without drugs; for her, getting ‘High” was the only route to happiness.  Her experience was real for her, and not just “talk” from a drug rehabilitation program, so it gave her motivation to stop taking drugs. Coming back to her physical body after being “out of it” and feeling her feelings again was powerful and healing.

Another young woman shared that the 5Rhythms gives inmates the opportunity to connect to each other with the ‘barriers’ down and how important this is, especially for first time offenders in jail because of their loneliness and their very real fear of being bullied by other inmates. These sessions provide a place where inmates can share their stories and find unity and draw on each other’s strength for support. Empathy is a very important step towards rehabilitation and I get to step right into it with them.

-- EMMA LEECH - Teaching the 5Rhythms in Prison