Monday, September 5, 2011

Penitentiary or Plie?

Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds, a book exhorting the educational system not to “raise standards” that simply reinforced hierarchical notions that literacy and mathematics are the only intelligent subjects, but to reinvigorate the education model in ways that incorporate creativity—the innovative creativity necessary in our swiftly shifting, technology-riddled, global world.

Robinson (Sir Robinson, should I say) asks us to reconsider our evaluation of the arts. Why are art programs always the first to be cut? When we find music therapy to be invaluable in aiding special needs students, when visual art is so therapeutic and even advantageous in today’s advertising market, when theatre/film physically and emotionally convicts the soul, and when DANCE—yes, John Calvin’s abhorred and verboten art form—when DANCE can save the young convict’s soul.

I know a young man whose name is not Tyrell, but we’ll call him that, since Confidentially is King, and Tyrell is a darn good name. Tyrell has no electricity in his home, no food other than unpopped popcorn (due, of course, to lack of electricity), and no proper parenting. A neighbor highlighted his home as the location of the next shooting, since teens flock there like cougars in [or packing] heat. But play the right jams, and Tyrell will dance, and even sing, with a musical intelligence incredible for a 10-year-old.

Tyrell isn’t a savant, unlike Derek Paravicini—a blind, likely autistic young man who cannot tie his shoes, but plays piano with uncanny brilliancy. But Tyrell does illustrate Robinson’s point: there are many intelligences, and some of them—the artistic ones, especially—are disregarded or ostracized in school. When an artistic intelligence is explored through a disciplined medium, incredible results can follow. Robinson illustrates as follows:

Dance United is a professional contemporary dance company based in Bradford in the United Kingdom. The company provides a dance-based education program called the Academy, as an option for young offenders within the local criminal justice setting….The participants have included young people convicted of robbery, drug offenses, burglary, and assault….The aim of the Academy is not simply to help young people to avoid re-offending; but to help them to discover their real potential an their innate capacity to succeed. (Robinson 133)

Though many were skeptical of the Academy’s program, contemporary dance proved to be “the one thing where I’ve seen people make the most progress over the shortest period of time,” explains a member of Dance United. Within just the first three weeks of the twelve-week program—when the participants professionally stage their first performance—many have already achieved a sense of discipline and self-confidence to approach challenge with physical and emotional strength. Jim Brady, a professional member of Dance United, says that participant Daryll didn’t even speak when he first joined the program, but now

He’s physically transformed by it. He’s now concerned about nutrition and diet and general health. He’s articulate and he’s speaking. He carries himself very differently. He’s confident and that all happened in the space of three weeks. That’s quite a transformation. (Robinson 135)
Penitentiaries rarely succeed in reforming young people; prisons rarely achieve rehabilitation. Why don't we try a few pliés? And why not transform our educational system to start with--incorporating hip-hop, ballet, film production, pottery, miming, puppetry, and so much more from the onslaught? Let's get creative in solving educational difficulties, and solve our children's penal difficulties en route.


  1. Rebecca...first...I love the picture. I connect so much with what you are saying about validation of all kinds of intelligences. Even though I did well in school and got good grades, I always sort of felt stupid and clueless. When I went into teaching in my mid-20s, I read Howard Gardner's work, and realized, "Wow! I'm actually intelligent!" I also connected with this, because I was a ballet dancer. I started off as a ballet major in college. It was my thing, my passion, for a long, long time. Have you heard of the famous ballet dancer, Jacques D'Amboise? He started a non-profit called National Dance Institute ( it out...I think you'll like it. Awesome reflection. Thank you!

  2. This was really interesting. I am always so impressed by dance and wistful that I can't do it. Well, I may be a step above Elaine from Seinfeld, but that's about it. Anyway, though, I'm really interested in programs that work with young offenders in creative ways and find the transformations that result to be really inspirational.

    This is only tangentially related, but it makes me think of that letter that (I think) a Detroit principal wrote asking that his students receive the same amount of money per pupil as we pay per prisoner. Obviously the idea is that we could significantly reduce the prison population with the funds available to truly educate our children. I think that programs like this one really prove how true that is. Kids shouldn't have to go to prison to get creativity infused into their lives. Maybe doing things like this before they offend could prevent the crimes from happening.

  3. Great insight, I share your concern about the loss of arts programs. I work in the Theatre world, and frequently Drama programs are among first to get the axe as well, despite the tremendous benefit I have seen first hand.

    Your entry reminded me of an episode of This American Life about maximum security inmates performing Hamlet:

    If you have a chance, give it a listen, it's amazing stuff.

  4. Nathan -- I hope to check it out! I've heard and seen something similar in my flick-and-flee tv watching. (I don't actually own a tv, but sometimes I watch it!)

    Rachel -- Ken Robinson writes that the public pays about $29,000 per annum for prisoners, and only $9000 per annum for students. What if we put the penitentiary payroll towards prevention --towards our students? Ah! It would be amazing!