Serving time, keeping time

Finding the freedom of expression behind bars.

The show begins when 46 women in white march one by one to microphones, bark out a name followed by a six- or seven-digit number, and stomp rhythmically in rows. It is late June, and we are seated in a gymnasium decorated with two large hand-painted quilts. At the sound of a loud, droning alarm, the women alter their rhythm and form gestural tableaux. Later we see hip-hop dancing, hear a moving tribute to a tree, watch group games, and feel the pulse of a Native American drum circle. The familiar choreographic style—layering a multitude of autobiographical scenes created by the performers in response to a central theme—is vintage Pat Graney. The performers, however, aren't your typical free-spirited modern dancers. They are inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, performing Graney's highly successful "Keep the Faith: The Prison Project." The women, who range in age and ethnicity, are serving time for all manner of crimes: forgery, drug trafficking, manslaughter, rape. . . . For the past three months, they have been collectively focused on expressing the idea of "home." The result is a profound example of the transformative power of performance.

Keep the Faith: The Prison Project

Pat Graney Company

Washington Corrections Center for Women, Gig Harbor

Graney began "Keep the Faith" in 1992 in Boston, where her contract with a producer required community outreach. Since then, she and her staff have generated "Keep the Faith" projects in Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Brazil, Germany, and Washington. Each program costs $50,000 to produce—dollars her company must raise. Major supporters this past year included several foundations, the NEA, and many individuals. This year marks Graney's fifth anniversary at WCCW. The first year, 50 participants drifted in and out of the project, with only 11 hanging in for the final show. Most recently, 80 participated and 45 performed. The ballooning numbers aren't simply a reflection of an increased prison population; word has spread among inmates that "Keep the Faith" teaches self-expression and real-life skills—more, some say, than any other program offered at the prison. At WCCW, inmates can participate in "leisure" programs (many of which are religious) offered by up to 800 volunteers. Graney's is the only performance-oriented opportunity. Second to the Pet Partnership Program, in which inmates train seeing-eye dogs, "Keep the Faith" attracts the most media attention. Graney knows of only one other choreographer, Odessa Jones, who works in prisons in a similar way.

"Keep the Faith" is the only program at WCCW that allows the women to engage in otherwise punishable offenses such as hand-holding, dancing, singing, and reading aloud—all by-products, Graney points out, of positive, creative, and life-affirming experiences. For three months, Graney, her nine staff, and six interns guide the inmates through basic movement classes, a writing workshop, and an art project. This year, one of the exercises involved composing a letter to the little girl each inmate used to be from the woman she is today. The inmates also researched the history of quilting and designed and painted squares to hang as a backdrop for the performance. In a recent interview Graney referred to the workshop process as the "primary effect" of "Keep the Faith." But, she added, "the secondary effects are stronger. The participants learn how to deal with being in a group, how to respect people they don't like and don't trust, how to complete a task and then witness something personal."

Graney's democratic approach to choreography—as opposed to authoritatively teaching steps—has precedents. In the 1960s dance iconoclasts Tricia Brown and Yvonne Rainer promoted the idea that everyone is a dancer. Both women combined speaking with improvised, idiosyncratic movements that were unrelated to any specific school of technique. Graney's interest in what makes people tick informs her approach with "Keep the Faith." When asked why she chose to focus her energies on female inmates, Graney cited the importance of addressing an underserved population. "I originally imagined a cloistered community of women—either a convent or a prison," she said.

Graney has a closer connection to the female inmates, it turns out, than her role as a choreographer and program leader. As a juvenile, she spent two weeks behind bars. "I grew up without many limits and was in trouble all the time. It's amazing that I didn't spend more time in jail," she admitted. "For women who are sensitive and expressive but without constructive outlets, KTF is the only thing they have. I don't want to make the project so self-important, but it's what I hear. For certain individuals, KTF is a climate they blossom in."

Lorna, a 48-year-old mother of seven and grandmother of 12, performed in "Keep the Faith" for three years. She's been out of WCCW for just over six months but stays involved as an official program advisor. "This is the first time in 35 years that I've been straight and not involved in crime," she says. "That's all due to Pat. She and her staff have all been there for me." Graney is a tremendous advocate of networking. "We're not going to pretend we don't know you when you get out!" she tells inmates. With Graney's help, Lorna hooked up with a naturopath, a chiropractor, a therapist, and a best friend. She recently earned her driver's license and is involved in volunteer-counselor training for at-risk teens. "KTF transformed me," she says, "more than a 360!" Tama Lisa, who is serving a 13-year sentence, says that Graney's program "helps us see the human part of each other and makes me want to be a part of a social community." Brenda, who has been out of WCCW for nearly a year, says the project taught her that "despite being a convicted felon I deserve to be treated like a human. It only takes one person to believe in you to make a difference. Pat and her staff were always in our corner."

As for the future of "Keep the Faith," Graney has a clear ideal: "Working with prison staff who really understand what we are trying to do," she said. "The superintendent is very progressive and very bright. But I wish someone would say, 'You're doing something really valuable, how can we help you? What do you need?' The volunteer coordinators are great but they have so many things to deal with; KTF is a low priority. It would be great to receive some federal or state money, too." After five years, Graney is still amazed by the effects the project has on its participants. "To be able to see the transformation, I have to be in a different mind-set. It's not logistics, statistics, or planning. But when there is a group structure, and people are contributing a creative part, there is a physical and spiritual level at work and a group consciousness that is extraordinary."

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