How a Dance Class in Prison Helped Inmates Find Some Freedom

IN APRIL 2020, Gales told me over the phone how he and his classmates, now confined to their cells most of the day in the prison version of quarantine, continued working on dance moves that would fit those constricted spaces. “We really wish we could do TikTok,” he said. “We would take over the world.”

That June, Webb told me that he and Gales could now sometimes dance together on the yard. He was also allowed to visit the art room, and throughout the year, some of his paintings were exhibited in Los Angeles galleries and online. His mother, Gina, responded to his art with amazement. “This is his pain that I have never seen,” she said.

Through 2020 and much of 2021, plans to restart the dance class kept being canceled. One by one, most members of the group were transferred to other prisons. Because of Webb’s record of good behavior, he was moved to the lower-security facility in Chino. Gales, whose sentence had been commuted by the governor of California in recognition of the work he had done to transform himself, was released on parole in April 2022.

In Chino, Webb asked Roy and Chamblas to restart the dance class there. In fall 2021, they did, this time teaching the course together. The focus shifted more to trauma and how it lives in the body. Chamblas recalled doing a trust exercise with a new student, who was supposed to close his eyes as Chamblas took his weight.

“His body felt super agitated,” Chamblas said, “and afterward, he said his body wanted to beat me.” The exercise had released a repressed memory of childhood abuse.

During a class I visited in September 2022, several men spoke of having been abused and of their discomfort with physical contact. “I couldn’t handle anybody touching me,” Thomas Bolin said. Convicted of murder in 1981, he had been a member of the Aryan Brotherhood for more than 40 years, violently enforcing racial divisions in San Quentin and other prisons.