Convicted felons released from prison, men of color from the inner city dancing together with white teenage girls and one boy — all Hudson Valley honor students — sounds like a combustible situation! But knowing both groups, it never crossed my mind bringing them together would be controversial. Art has the power to blur differences in age, religion, race and politics — especially when everyone’s attention is focused on the process. So, long before the first rehearsal and the e-mail accusing me of promoting pedophilia, we had meetings with the parents, the dance students and the formerly incarcerated men. Concerns were voiced and addressed. I told the parents if any one of them objected to restaging “Welcome to the World,” my, if I do say so myself, masterpiece with both groups, all they had to do was call me privately and that would be the end of it. No one called. We have been rehearsing furiously and fastidiously for eight months.
I’m retiring soon. Competition teams, cookie-cutter skinny bodies, sequined provocative costumes and precocious movements are popular now. I’m old-school, soon to have no school.
Had I known how much notoriety the prison dance program would bring my way in the eleventh-hour of my career, it would have been avoided. It all caused extra work, like trudging up a steep hill when your body wants to be floating around in a pool.
In prisons, film, photography and recordings are strictly forbidden. Making art in jail is not the place to become well-known. On occasion, I write about the program here. A handful of my friends have received permission to attend the performances inside. Still, serendipity has been kind: four featured magazine articles, three public radio shows, twice nominated a CNN Hero, New York City performances and two documentary films, all have occurred without my burning a single calorie to make it happen. I have watched the documentary several, okay many times, listened to the radio shows, read the magazine articles. Gosh! I felt good about myself! Really good — until the e-mail polluted all those really good feelings with sexual and racist innuendos.
“Is pedophilic content justified in the context of art and dance?” So began the unsigned e-mail. This paper was also in receipt of the missive — the scribe, an anonymous “social worker” in New York City with a pen name. She went on:
“I was solicited for donations for a New Paltz, NY-based youth dance company, Figures-in-Flight 4, collaborating with a dance company of released prisoners. The youth company is comprised of girls in their mid-teens, and the released prisoners’ company is made up of men. In my clinical training it was stressed that, developmentally, teenagers are at a stage that is controlled mainly through their emotions. They are exploring their sexuality. Teenage girls are easily flattered and influenced by attention from older men. These girls have normal sexual impulses, but don’t yet have the life experience to know what to do with these impulses. Dance is a physical, sensual and intimate activity. Dancers merge their bodies to create artistic “oneness.” Why is pedophilic contact okay in the context of art and dance?