Learning How to Dance Off Conflict

Choreographer Raul Lopez demonstrates a new dance move to girls in the Youthful Offender Unit at Juvenile Hall.
August 2, 2012 | 9:09am

The girls watch intently as the dance instructors use big energetic movements to demonstrate a new movement. A few try to mimic the steps right away but others hang back and watch the choregrapher with the fire-engine red Mohawk repeat them a few more times. All of the girls make faces and laugh when they stumble through the routine the first time. Eventually, they all get the movement down and they smile in relief.

Can dancing help reduce anger and confrontation? Juvenile probation officers certainly hope it can reach some of their troubled girls and give them an outlet for aggression especially once they are out of custody.

Conflict resolution is a running theme for the TranscenDANCE Youth Arts program based in City Heights. The theme seemed to be a perfect fit with the goals of the San Diego County Probation Department’s Youthful Offender Unit (YOU). The TranscenDANCE dancers worked with Probation to set up an in-custody program at Juvenile Hall in Kearny Mesa for about nine girls serving time for committing serious offenses.

One of those girls, Sheaonna Ryan, 19, is serving time for probation violations, and said initially she only agreed to participate because it got her out of recreation. Now, she looks forward to it.

“I think it helps the girls let off a lot of steam and it’s fun. We’re having fun,” said Ryan. “It’s cool. I like it. I will probably look into it when I get out.”

Seiha Vor, 24, associate artistic director with TransenDANCE, said when they first started working with the group of girls, they did not seem very interested. But every week they returned, the girls remembered the choreography which showed him they were interested. Now, the girls are giving input on choreography and music, and laughing as they struggle to keep up with new dance moves.

“You can’t perform when you’re angry. You just forget about all negativity,” Vor said. “You have to let go and go with the music.”

“Sometimes dancing is a way to connect with other people,” said Supervising Probation Officer Jason Druxman. “One of the things that we try to do in YOU is bring in outside programming, something that might resonate with the girls and give them new experiences … not everyone is going to connect with dance, but someone might.”

Claudia Perez, 18, who is in custody for violating her probation for gang and curfew violations, is one of those girls who is finding dance to be an unexpected interest.

“I’m not really open-minded to a lot of new things but with this, I basically tried to be open-minded to it and once I did, I thought it was pretty fun,” Perez said. “I’m connecting with it by trying my best.”

Supervising Probation Officer Mindy McCartney said she has been impressed with the program and the girls’ participation.

“It’s been really great. A lot of these girls are really hard and it’s been good to see the walls come down gradually,” McCartney said.

Druxman said they brought in TranscenDance last year to do a one-time session and it had a positive response, so this year they decided to expand it to four weekly sessions that culminates in a performance for their families next week. With a judge’s permission, some of the girls will also get to see the TranscenDANCE troupe’s Peace of Courage performance later this month at the Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza.

Druxman said one of the reasons they looked at this program is because it regularly works with troubled youth. Some of the dancers in the troupe also come from difficult and troubling circumstances, so they can relate to the girls in custody and show them a better way to cope with conflict.

Raul Lopez, 20, an assistant teaching artist with TranscenDANCE, said he was interested in this program because he wanted to help these girls discover dance. For him, it has dramatically transformed his life. He felt adrift before joining the dance troupe and now he’s grounded. Dancing has also given him self confidence and helped him reject negativity.

“Art can be a way to express yourself. It can be a way to heal. It’s another tool and it’s a healthy way to get there,” said dance teacher Angela Moran, 34, who works with TranscenDANCE.