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See what it looks like when you teach women in prison to dance.

How dancing helped these inmates to find freedom in prison.

See what it looks like when you teach women in prison to dance.

Women at the South Middlesex Correctional Center don’t have much freedom to move.

But twice a week, a small group gathers in the cafeteria at the prison prison outside Boston. And they dance.


All photos in this story by Heidi Shin, used with permission.

22-year old dancer Christine says the dancing is a chance “to express yourself, and to feel normal” in a place where you don’t have many choices.

Dancers stretch before a challenging routine.

The women are part of a program called Moving Steps, where professional dancers help inmates choreograph their own routines — hip-hop, ballet, and modern dance.

A few times a year, they also stage performances in the prison cafeteria.

Former inmates dancing freestyle during a Friday night rehearsal in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Scarves, which the women wanted to use for their performances, were banned in the prison because they were seen as a risk during the holidays, when depression and thoughts of suicide were more likely to rise among the inmates.

Makeup had been banned, too, so the women got creative during performances, turning bedsheets into makeshift scarves and using glitter from the ornaments on the Christmas trees as eye shadow.

The dance group serves as a kind of support group for the women both on the “inside” and once they’ve transitioned to the outside world.

Coming together to work through their choreography is like a support group, the women say.

It's a way of overcoming past traumas, too — many have been survivors of violence and abuse in the past.

Some have children in the outside world. Others have family members who they haven’t spoken with in some time. For them, the performances can also mark a family reunion of sorts.

On the day of the performance, visitors push their IDs through a bulletproof window and wait to be ushered inside.

Other inmates file in to watch, too. “I think [my grandma] was crying,” Christine says. “She thought it was awesome. She was really proud of me. Because she’s seen me how I was before, before all the issues started.”

Adrianne Tabet acts not just as the program's director, but also as den mother.

Adrianne Tabet, the group’s program director, watches a studio rehearsal in Cambridge.

Last year, when Tabet faced hip surgery, the women rallied to send her handmade cards. After the performance, she visits with one group and then the next, praising the accomplishments of the women to the family members who've come to watch.

The program isn’t just a new start for the inmates, either.

One former instructor was a recently retired dancer from Jose Mateo's ballet company, a professional dance troupe in Boston.

Instructor Mary Teuscher is a professional dancer who volunteers with Moving Steps.

Given the physical strain of dancing, ballet dancers often retire young. So volunteering while studying to become a dance therapist is a way of launching a new career for some instructors as well.

The program doesn't end when women are released from prison.

In fact, Tabet says their dance group is most critical as women re-enter the world. They continue to gather on Friday nights at a dance studio in Cambridge.

Dance practice in Cambridge.

A dancer shows off a few moves.

One member of the group prepares for an upcoming performance in Harvard Square.

As they transition to “life on the outside” the dance group gives some sense of stability.

In addition to dancing, most of the women in the group are now working jobs in food service — one of the few industries likely to give people with criminal records a second chance. Christine says she’s chosen to keep dancing after leaving prison because “it’s something to look forward to, commit to, and to stay on the right path.”

Next up, Tabet hopes to launch a dance program for kids of incarcerated mothers to help them cope with the stresses of being separated from their parents.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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