She tells us freedom begins when the body wakes up and remembers itself. She tells us to reach our arms up high above our heads, stretch, feel our blood beating life into our hurting hearts. She tells us that even though we’re here, crammed together inside these indifferent beige walls, we’re not really here—we are patterns, energy, waves. We are breaking on some other shore.
Usually, I hate this kind of earthy talk. But tonight I do as I’m told and place a hand over my heart, feel its hot jump, and I too am convinced. For six weeks, I’ve come here—to the county jail in downtown Dallas—as a volunteer. I pass out paintbrushes and construction paper and gel pens that the women love using to draw on their skin, admiring the bright swirls of glitter on their pallid hands and arms. I also participate in activities with them. Last week we painted watercolors. At the end of class, when we had to show our work, I turned mine around—a pathetic attempt at the Chicago skyline, the buildings lopsided, the paint spread on too thick—and we all cracked up.
“It looks like the jail, yo!” someone said. We laughed so loud that the guard, a short woman wearing a heavy navy vest, her eyebrows tweezed to thin em-dashes, had to rap on the other side of the shatterproof window, a finger pressed to her unsmiling lips.
Tonight is dance class. Fourteen of us are packed into this dorm-sized classroom— pod, the guards call it, a word that sounds as alien as the jail feels. What little air exists is sour with nervous anticipation.
“I ain’t danced in a minute,” says a woman I don’t recognize. Two wary blue eyes peek out from behind a mess of blonde hair that hangs in strings around her face.
I also can’t remember the last time I danced—at a friend’s wedding last summer, I think, with the man I left months ago back home in Chicago. My ribs, my teeth ache to think of him, of his touch.
Ana, the instructor, smiles at us. “This isn’t about being good,” she says. “This is about you and your body, letting yourself go.”
“Yeah? Where we gonna go, Miss Ana?” says a heavyset woman, gesturing to the walls surrounding us. People snap and murmur in agreement.
Ana looks out at us with a face full of patience. She wears her hair shaved at the sides and long on top, tied into a buoyant, gray-streaked ponytail. In yoga pants and a loose striped shirt, her feet sheathed in pink ballet slippers, she radiates a tenderness that these women probably haven’t known for months or even years, their spines hardened by metal bunk beds and toenails overgrown inside jail-issue black rubber Crocs. Most are alcohol or drug addicts, their faces drained of color, sleepless. From the jail, they’ll be released into local rehab programs. But the women in the pod across from ours, who we don’t work with, are all awaiting trial for some form of aggravated assault. Then they’ll be shipped off to other prisons in other parts of Texas, patches of remote land I’ve never heard of.
In Dallas, the jail—seventh largest in the nation with over three thousand inmates—is located smack in the middle of downtown. When class ends and I walk out into the still night air, I crane my neck to take in the jagged skyline twinkling blues and greens, a welcome contrast to the colorless world of cameras and metal detectors I’ve just left behind. It’s a world plenty of Dallasites unknowingly drive past every day—I missed the jail several times myself on my first visit, its flat, beige exterior blending in with the maze of parking lots and Bail Bonds buildings.
I’ve only lived in Dallas six months and am still unfamiliar with the city and its twisting roads, which I tell myself is why I rarely leave my apartment. I don’t want to admit my loneliness; after all, it was my decision to box up my life and move across the country for a teaching job, a job that in a demanding market I was lucky to get. Loneliness felt like failure, and so, when a student told me about her internship at the jail, I figured it would be a good excuse to get out of the house and do something useful, an activity to fill my otherwise vacant Friday nights.
Dallas is itself a lonely city. A city of tech companies and chain restaurants and the cleanest, emptiest sidewalks; a city that hides its crumbling roads behind the bright orange promise of perpetual construction, and incarceration shares this concealment, hidden at the city’s center; we offer ourselves the illusion of repair.
The women here are some of these hidden bodies. Through the smudged classroom windows, I watch them trying to pass the time: playing cards at the steel picnic tables, reading books, brushing their hair and teeth, napping, writing letters, plodding in and out of the showers in their Crocs. Towels untwist from waists. Breasts point defiantly toward the glass, their stark nakedness a small shock. I look away in an effort to honor what little privacy they have left.
Dance, Ana says, is about freeing ourselves, finding a secret space inside our bodies that no lock can close. I stand next to her and the women sit on the floor at her feet, listening as she explains The Five Rhythms, a freestyle dance in five movements that, when performed in sequence, are known as a Wave.
The first movement is Flowing. To demonstrate, Ana stretches her arms out long in front of her and bends way, way back like she’s doing the limbo, head dangling loose on her neck. Slowly, limb by limb, she pulls herself upright and transitions into a twirl, arms fanning out at her sides and treading air, right foot tucked into her left knee like a flamingo sunning itself.
“Yo, Miss Ana,” says a young woman named Charisse, her hair rubber banded into a large curly bun that stretches the skin at her temples. “How we gonna get low in this shit?” She plucks at her baggy pink-and-green striped jumpsuit as the room erupts into a collective howl. Charisse is new to county. Like me, she’s in her late twenties and from Chicago, which I found out last week when I sat at her table to work on my watercolor of the city. As we painted, we talked about bars we’d stayed too late in and restaurants we could still taste, speaking home to each other, growing giddy when we knew the same places. Charisse told me she’d loved Orange Garden, a Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood whose blood-red exterior had always caught my eye walking past, though I’d never been inside. It looked depressing, I thought, the windows dark and tables always empty, but this is what Charisse liked about it, how it hung on anyways.
Eyes closed, spine pulled taut as an umbrella handle, Ana spins and spins. We grow quiet watching her, watching the body do what it can’t do—is not supposed to do—in here. As I look at their faces gone soft with awe, I don’t think I can imagine anything in my life that holds such pain as this. The knowledge makes me feel guilty. Eight o’clock is when our class ends and I head home to cook a single salmon fillet for dinner while they begin another round of dominoes until lights off at ten. Eight o’clock is the end of the illusion that their world is open to me. When the truth is we don’t share the same space. A space isn’t the same for a person who has chosen to be there and a person who hasn’t. Where we gonna go, Miss Ana?
Ana skids to a halt in her ballet shoes and we applaud.
“Thank you, thank you,” she laughs, scraping pieces of hair off her flushed cheeks. “Now it’s your turn.” Ana asks me to help her usher everyone into two lines, facing each other like they’re looking into a mirror. Through the glass I feel the other pod’s eyes on us, their heads turned away from the wall television that always plays old Maury episodes. Every week there are paternity tests failed and screaming women wronged. I watch them jump to their feet, watch them flail and cry and pace, a violent beauty in their movements as they hurtle across the stage toward their betrayer, eyes blazing, limbs thrashing, unrestrained. Locked in their pod, the women stand huddled in front of the TV and cheer, reveling in the body’s release.
But right now they’re watching us. I feel like an idiot. Their eyes only illuminate my fear that I have nothing worthwhile to offer them, that my curiosity is little more than the fruitless voyeurism of Maury. I look down at the scratched floors. No matter how much we talk or laugh—no matter what we share together in these two hours, trivial or not—I still can’t know what it’s like to be them. I still can’t know their world; all I can do is try to reach them by reaching across the divide between that world and the one we call ours, the one we call real.
The second movement is Staccato. We wait for Ana to scroll through her iPod—for some reason, the only technology the jail allows. The quick, punchy notes of The Ramones drown out the dull buzz of fluorescent lights overhead, the mops squeaking down an empty hallway somewhere.
Sheena is a punk rocker, Sheena is a punk rocker . . .
The class starts to bounce and sing and shoulder-shimmy, lit up with a fire I haven’t seen before. Usually, they’re tired after dinner and prefer to stay seated at the flimsy plastic tables, writing or watercoloring as music plays softly in the background, lulling them into memories. And in here, memory is everything, the difference between living and dying. “This is me fishing with my boys,” said one woman last week, turning over her painting to show us a smeary blue lake. Then there was the beautiful Latina woman, released now, who painted her boyfriend’s BMW a shiny nail polish red. He was incarcerated next door in the men’s jail; they’d locked eyes one afternoon in the visitor’s lounge and their romance blossomed the only way it can in a place like this: through whispers, savored glances, notes passed between friends. His name was Eddie, a tattoo artist. She sent him some of her watercolors and, in return, he sketched her pictures of his BMW that he swore he would pick her up in when she was released three weeks after him. The car would be right there waiting for her, he wrote, right there outside the jail for all of Dallas to see. Their plan was to gun it all the way to San Diego, she told us, tapping a long, unpainted fingernail on her watercolor and grinning. They would drive and drive with all the windows down, chewing gum and everything, hair blowing free in the sharp salt air. I look at the bland concrete wall where her painting is still taped up, a bright red blur barreling toward a nauseous yellow sun, and wonder if she ever made it.
Dance, Ana says, isn’t about looking back at the past or into the future. Dance is about living now, following the body’s shame and hurt and heat wherever it takes us. We watch as she rises up on her toes and skips in small circles around the pod, ponytail whipping, arms pin-wheeling at her sides. This is Staccato, she calls over the music. Limbs springy and light, as if all the weight has been drained from them.
Ana re-starts the song.
“I want you to face the person across from you,” she says. “On my count, each pair will dance together down the center, mirroring each other’s movements.”
I turn and lock eyes with Kelsey, a tall, gawky woman about my age who has been here since I started volunteering. She wears her straw-colored hair long and wavy down her back, her gauged earlobes stretched out like soft taffy. Tattoos cover every inch of skin on her arms and neck. Most are stick-and-pokes, lacking the precise lines of a professional needle: music notes, spider webs, skulls, flowers snaking up her collarbone and down her forearms. Beneath the ink, I can see the angry cuts in her skin, little pale, puckered stitches.
Kelsey air high-fives me. “What up, Professor?” She gave me the nickname on my first day volunteering. “Professors don’t wear those,” she’d said, pointing to the black-and-white checkered Vans I’d selected because they were close-toed, a jail rule. She used to own a pair, she told me later, when she was sixteen and bands were her whole world—Thrice, NOFX, Rise Against, the same angry pop-punk stuff I was into back then, also sixteen, also lonely. This was back when Kelsey still got dropped off at shows by her parents, before her dad left with another woman, and her mom started working doubles at KMart, and Kelsey had to drive herself to shows, some nights with a few beers already in her, that cheap piss-water crap her mom hid under the kitchen sink as if Kelsey wasn’t smart enough to look there. Or— the thought that wouldn’t quit—did her mom want her to look? Did she need a friend in misery, a drinking buddy instead of a daughter? This was what Kelsey was wondering when the cops pulled her over late one January night, speeding home from a metal show in Dallas. It was cold outside, Kelsey remembered; even through her thick coat of booze she felt the wind’s bite on her bare arms as the cops pulled them roughly behind her, handcuffing her wrists together. In the back of the police car, she imagined calling her mom from jail and laughed, actually laughed—it was all so unbelievable, the siren’s high whine so cartoonish, like something she’d seen on TV and not in real life, not her life.
But here she is. Kelsey faces me, both of us smiling nervously. The others stand with their knees locked, arms crossed tight over their chests as if they’re afraid to let go. In here, you can’t afford to be vulnerable. You have to be hard, just a little bit, if you don’t want to get pushed around—a sad irony when the government owns your body, tells you where it can and cannot be.
“The third movement is Chaos,” says Ana. She stands in the middle of our two lines in her ballet shoes, rolling up and down on the balls of her toes. “Think of a time in your life when you’ve wanted to just—”
Ana starts punching the air, a flurry of fists and swift karate chops.
“Group this morning!” someone yells.
“Eating this wack food!”
“Trying to take a shit in private!”
I think of the last fight I had with my ex-boyfriend, his angry face.
Ana holds up her hand, the signal to quiet down and pay attention.
“When I press play,” she says, “each pair will show us Chaos.” Ana nods at me. “Amy and Kelsey will lead.”
Guitars howl from Ana’s small speakers. Next to me, Kelsey begins to bob her head, hesitant at first and then faster, long hair slashing her tired cheeks. I close my eyes and see my ex again, and now I’m moving too, moving with Kelsey, both of us tossing our necks back and forth like we’re sixteen again, our elbows flying, knees pumping. As I move, I am painfully aware of the stiffness in my limbs, the self-consciousness that clings to my skin like water droplets.
“Hell yeah, Professor!” Next to me, Kelsey is pumping her fists in the air and laughing, and for the briefest of moments, I feel my muscles loosening, feel my body warming to the bodies around me. Is it deceptive, this sense of connection? Or is it possible that tenderness exists even here, in this place that seeks to subdue the body, strip it of desire?
We reach the end of the line and everyone cheers. Kelsey raises her hand for another air high-five; in jail, we aren’t allowed to touch, a rule I feel in every closely monitored second, every fumbling gesture of tonight’s class. I watch the guards watching us through the glass and realize what is so threatening about touch: It is beyond language, beyond thought, and cannot be controlled. In front of me, a pair of women dance in their lines, keeping their careful distance, skipping side-by-side like a couple of birds that agree to fly away without a sound between them. Limbs strain inside their shapeless green jumpsuits and I smile to watch their dance, a small rebellion.
“Feel your hips,” Ana instructs from the center. “Feel your spines, your wrists.”
“Feel ya booty!” yells Charisse. She bends her knees and drops low to the ground as we scream-laugh, thrilled by her flagrant carnality. Hips thrust, chests pop, and for just a moment the cramped space is wider, full of raw desire.
“I haven’t laughed like this in so long,” smiles the doe-eyed woman next to me, thin arms gripped to her sides as if to hold the sound in. When it’s her turn to dance, she closes her eyes and extends her arms, bruised soft like an apple’s skin, to gather up the stagnant air. Alone, she moves to the private beat of her own heart, spinning and spinning while we stand and watch and surrender this moment in the spotlight; it is the least we can do, to allow her this.
Lyric is next. The music slows and lightens and so, too, do our bodies. Feet glide, arms sway, ribs lift. At first, we are self-conscious and silly, staggering around on our toes in an impression of delicate ballerinas. But as we continue to dance—as our limbs start to wake—the mood grows solemn. One woman, a former dental hygienist whose skin is mottled mauve from drink, sits slumped against the concrete wall, crying softly into her hands. Another, her heap of long brown hair spiraling out of its bun, stops mid-twirl and turns abruptly to face us. “It feels so good,” she says, and I ache to hear the truth of her words in my own body, gone untouched for months. Arms held out at our sides, we float around each other like shadows, offering space, seeking out our own.
“When you’re ready, allow yourself to come to a gentle stop,” says Ana, breaking into our silence.
We have entered the fifth and final rhythm: Stillness.
Ana crosses the room and switches off the lights. The only illumination comes from the pod across from ours, a harsh fluorescent glow pressing against the windows. On the other side of the glass, a line of women waits for medication, hands clutching little white Styrofoam cups that a doctor will fill with pills meant to numb the body, slow the heart, calm the blood. Stillness is the jail’s goal: to quiet the body into compliance. But Ana has a different idea.
“Stillness doesn’t have to mean surrender,” she says as we slow our feet and breath, easing our arms back down to our sides. “Stillness is where we meet ourselves, come to peace.”
Ana puts on a song I don’t recognize. Bright choral tones flood the room and fill every inch of space. She signals to me and together we gently usher the women into a circle, our eyes closed, heads bowed, listening. The lyrics have to do with the power of positivity, of letting it inside every day. Normally my inner skeptic would roll her eyes— cliché, I imagine marking in red pen on student papers—but the dim lighting, the close circle and hearts beating all around me, give me pause. On my right, Kelsey’s arm lightly brushes mine but I don’t pull away. I am not, for once, thinking only of myself, my heart, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s perfect wildness. The small and magnificent rebellion of muscle and skin and bone.
“Where on your bodies do you need to let in some positivity?” Ana says, her voice dipping low like an easy hill. “I want you to put your hands there.”
Across from me, Charisse presses her palms to her heart. Her eyes are closed, lips parted slightly as she sings along, her face so relaxed she looks almost peaceful. Gradually we follow her example. Eyes close. Limbs slacken. Throats open in a steady hum that rolls through the room like a muscular wave, carrying us out to some far-off shore.
“That’s it,” Ana says as hands lift to heads, hips, hearts. Fingers settle against breasts, bellies, arms. “Do you feel it? Do you?”
My hands are on my chest; I crack open an eye and meet Charisse’s gaze, palms cupping her own heart. We smile. We squeeze harder.