A van of about 20 Stanford students unloads at a San Mateo County juvenile detention center. Some are wearing comfortable sneakers, while others have already put on their soft ballet flats. As they walk into the facility, massive metal doors clang closed behind them. The command desks in the central lobby have been pushed over to the walls, which can only mean one thing: it’s time to dance.
Such was the scene set by drama professor Janice Ross M.A. ’75 Ph.D. ‘98, a veteran of the Haas Center for Public Service, who spoke on Wednesday evening as part of the Miriam and Peter E. Haas Centennial Professorship Lecture Series on Public service.
“At first glance, the combination of the words dance and prison might sound like a paradox or a bad joke,” Ross said. “We try to erase that absurdity.”
Ross presented her course, “Dance in Prisons: The Arts, Juvenile Justice, and Rehabilitation in America,” which she started at Stanford nine years ago. The course brings 15 to 20 Stanford students to learn dance with the incarcerated at San Mateo and Santa Clara County juvenile halls and nearby high schools for juvenile offenders.
The goals of the program include creating a positive environment in which troubled teens, or “insiders,” as Ross described them, can engage in artistic and emotional expression, but also to provide a hands-on way for Stanford students to connect with issues of social justice outside of the Stanford “bubble.”
When the class runs, Ross said “innkeepers” report noticeable improvements in insiders’ behavior.
Ross said Dance in Prisons was inspired by jazz instructor Ehud Krauss, who has been teaching dance in prison settings for 20 years; Ross met Krauss while writing a features story about him for Dance Magazine. She recalled seeing Krauss teaching young men in baggy shorts with probation officers jeering as they stood by. The room was dim and the dance was taught on a cement floor that smelled strongly of disinfectant.
Ross has since offered her own course at Stanford eight times in the past eleven years.
According to Ross, a lack of funding prevented her from offering the course this year, but she thinks it is highly likely that the course will be offered next year, and is working to get funding.
The course, which runs for three consecutive quarters for purposes of continuity, has traditionally been funded by Haas. In the past, Haas has covered the approximate $60 cost per student to take the course, which covers requirements for security clearances and costs associated with transportation and parking.
According to Ross, the fact that the course could not be offered in the 2009-10 academic year was a reflection of the larger campus budget crisis; after Haas communicated that its funding was restricted, she “didn’t even put forth a request” to obtain funding. Ross said that the drama department has never participated in funding the course for budgetary reasons.
Ross admits that not everyone in the scholarly community takes the program seriously.
“I think there is a question of whether it is really art anymore, or if it’s therapy, and that is really where the tension is,” she said. Conversations with co-workers in the arts and public service spheres have made her believe that the program “doesn’t lodge comfortably in any camp that I live in.”
Part of what makes the program so unconventional is the way in which it blends public service with the study of art and social justice. The course is co-taught by a graduate of Stanford Law School, Christa Gannon J.D. ‘97, who teaches the class about issues of juvenile justice.
The course often shifts students from seeing dance as merely “recreation or an elite practice,” Ross said, to viewing it as a medium for social justice.
The United States has the highest proportion of incarcerated people in the world, at 745 inmates per 100,000 citizens. Ross added that 93,000 youth around the nation are currently in detention centers, and there are significant racial discrepancies among the incarcerated. Nationwide, there are three times as many African American females incarcerated as white females.
“The lives of people in prisons remains largely invisible, the stories of these people largely ignored,” Ross said.
Krauss attended the lecture and attested that both students and insiders derive positive benefits from the program. Xandra Clark ’12 and Mariam Nek ’11 both took the course last year and spoke about their experiences.
“Every week we danced with the same partner, so we sort of built a relationship over time,” Clark said. “We could talk about anything except for why the inmate was in there.”
Nek, a psychology major, said the class changed the way that she perceives incarcerated youth.
“I was the kind of person who believed that people who were in juvenile hall deserved it,” she said. “I came to this class and did a 180 completely . . . strict punishment wasn’t the way to help these kids.”
Nek was impressed by the respect insiders showed to the Stanford students.
“The boys had a respect for space between our bodies — a respect you don’t see in college boys at parties,” she said.
Standing up from the back of the room at the end of the talk, Krauss explained why he values the program so highly.
“We all make a difference with these kids’ lives. They are lonely kids, they are lost,” he said. “Through dance, we connect them to different people. And that’s a gift we all have and I hope that we use it.”