Contact Improvisation: A Tool for Rehabilitation? by Sophie Thorpe (Verve 2014)

tn_contactimpronew1 image credits: Edgar Portraits


  2. PRISONS……………………………………………………………………………………….5

2.1 WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE IN PRISON?…………………………………………………………………5





  1. DANCE. 16



  1. TOUCH…………………………………………………………………………………………20




  3. APPENDIX. 43










The purpose of this study is to explore the potential benefits of dance for men in British prisons, with an emphasis on the form of Contact Improvisation. It queries how this can assist prisoners in learning new ways of behaving and relating to each other positively, to aid rehabilitation and reduce rates of recidivism. Touch will be a key issue both in terms of the practice of Contact Improvisation and its relation to the wider social context.


Art is an intrinsic part of human civilisation and has an inherent capacity to heal (Levine 1997, Archibald 2012,) with its restorative and transformative qualities (Hogan 2001; Waller 1991). The arts possess qualities that allow a process of change to occur which, subsequently, acts as a catalyst for rehabilitation and reintegration back into society for those who have been imprisoned. They produce ‘exactly the skills and common humanity that offenders need if they are to be rehabilitated back into our communities’ (Creative Scotland, 2013).


Arts practice in prisons and rehabilitation settings in the UK is varied and eclectic with some interventions focused on the therapy and others purely on acquiring new skills, from which therapeutic benefits can arise (Williams, 2003). From established large-scale arts organisations to individual practitioners, workshops take on many creative forms including dance, theatre and voice to visual arts, creative writing and crafts. However, common to them all is the fact that they provide a safe space in which permission is granted to take risks, experiment freely and reflect, thus giving scope for new possibilities to arise and the potential for change to occur as the workshop ethos is a space of mutuality that welcomes the unknown (Schaverian, 1992). Arts practices in prisons enhance the social, educational and rehabilitative aims of the broader criminal justice services (Creative Scotland, 2013), helping to achieve one of the justice system’s aims of transforming the aspirations, perspectives and possibilities for individual offenders and give them the tools to help prepare them for returning to society and readjusting to integration into local communities (Creative Scotland, 2013).


The arts empower people and stimulate engagement, thus motivating change and restoring a sense of purpose, self worth and belief which can transform those who have been totally disaffected by imprisonment and institutionalisation due to the lack of freedom and the control placed over prisoners’ lives. Participation and expression through the arts have continuously been proven to educate, inspire, motivate and offer hope (Arts Alliance, 2012) facilitating reflection on our experiences. Consequently, this aids us in understanding ourselves more in relation to the world and where we fit in (Arts Alliance, 2012). It brings to light the possibility of change and ways to learn new behaviours, and offer a chance to practice being who you want to be (Creative Scotland, 2013), leading to the creation of a more positive identity.


The potential of the arts to support the rehabilitative process of offenders and aid post release resettlement is widely documented as successful and effective. However, the arts, like other rehabilitative interventions, can often be regarded as an “add on” or dismissed as a soft option and, therefore, do not receive the recognition they warrant in policy and practice (Nugent and Loucks, 2011; Arts alliance, 2012). However, this is to misunderstand the dedication, skill, responsibility and creativity required and to also disregard the evidence that ‘cultural activities are legitimate and successful healing interventions’ (Castellano, 2006, p. 148).


My research is informed by secondary sources comprising of literature from the arts sector and the criminal justice sector. I have also gathered primary data through interviews with Michelle Bynoe who was in involved in Dance United’s prison work and Tomislav English, a dance student who has had personal experiences of imprisonment and contact improvisation. Moreover, I have drawn on theoretical and practical accounts of the significance of touch and my personal experiences of contact improvisation. This has aided me in creating a scheme of work and a lesson plan for leading contact improvisation workshops in male prisons (See Appendix number 1 and 2).




2.1 What does it mean to be in prison?

Prisons are complex, conflicted institutions where the predominant aim is to fulfil its punishment role with what Scott refers to as the ‘deliberate infliction of suffering and hardships upon those contained in its walls’ (2007, p. 49). The authoritarian nature of prisons inhabit a pivotal role within crime control and their use in England and Wales have risen dramatically from 41,800 prisoners in June 1993 to 86,000 prisoners in June 2012. This increase of 98% (Justice, 2012) over a nineteen year period exposes western culture’s reliance on imprisonment. Alongside the intention to punish, prisons aim to rehabilitate and deter individuals from committing crimes in the future, simultaneously protecting the public from harm through physical and spatial segregation. Crewe argues that to be imprisoned entails some ‘more-or-less intrinsic pains, deprivations and conditions and these factors influence prisons culture and social organization’ (2009, p. 4). Marginalisation, deprivation, and stigmatisation are daily norms for prisoners who have to learn to cope with life inside and adopt new ways of behaving in order to fit in with the internal prison structure and hierarchies.


2.2 Power, deprivation and resistance

Being institutionalised has a profound effect on an individual as they have to learn and adopt new ways of behaving to fit into the social norms and hierarchies that exist within the institution. Subjection to imprisonment entails inherent deprivations and pains, which Crewe (2009, p. 4) argues have a major impact on the prison’s social organisation and culture. Regulation of mundane daily tasks such as; eating, sleeping, showering and the material, physical, emotional, sexual and spatial deprivation that prisoners experience, culminate in a generalised feeling of the ‘powerlessness and inevitable, unchangeable nature of captivity’ (Crewe, 2009, p. 84), due to the almost total social control and lack of freedom over prisoners everyday lives. Crewe succinctly summarises the views of Michael Foucault, the French philosopher known for his critical studies of social institutions. ‘Through timetabling, regimentation and spatial organization, constraint is instilled in both the body and the psyche’ (Crewe, 2009, p. 83). The constant symbolic reminders of penal institution dominance and the almost total social control over prisoners reinforces the feeling that resistance to the system is ineffectual and futile and that compliance is generally the easiest way to survive. (Crewe, 2009) Perhaps, there is the feeling that there is no other option as imprisonment is absolute. Carrabine (2005) argues that incarceration is generally always completely realistic, thus supporting Crewe’s views on the feeling of powerlessness to the situation. However, prisoners may try to subvert this through resistance. Studies of women’s imprisonment have found that the choice of clothes and the use of in-group language and jokes were forms of personal subversions and resistances to the rules and procedures enforced by the prison (Bosworth 1999 p. 130; Bosworth and Carrabine, 2000). Although they may appear trivial, these minor unprepared resistances and expressions against the system help the prisoners in re-finding personal integrity, agency, and sense of self within an authoritarian penal system that controls nearly every aspect of their lives (Crewe, 2009, p. 96). Moreover, there has been evidence to suggest the development of same sex relations in prisons with women who identified themselves as heterosexual before entering prison. Evans, Foster and Forsythe (2002, p. 68) argue that this is part of adapting to the harsh realities of the prison environment and is a reaction to the deprivations endured. These subversions of the system may be efforts to forge new identities in order cope to with the sexual deprivation and lack of compassion in prisons. Perhaps these resistances are ways of creating boundaries between the self and the institution in order to feel as though prisoners are not fully subordinating to the regime. When basic freedom and privileges are taken away, it is these expressions of resistance that may help personal and psychological survival. Even attempting to maintain aspects of identity may become forms of personal resistance as, once incarcerated, it is difficult to maintain the sense of identity and individuality as one is now defined by being a prisoner. ‘Prisons deny inmates many aspects of their ‘outside’ identities, seeking to substitute the identity of ‘prisoner’’ (Codd, 2003, p. 7).


2.3 A culture of Machismo

Positive relationships can be difficult and strained in institutionalised environments that carry their own ‘complex social world of values’ (Viggiani, 2007, p. 115), beliefs and codes surrounding touch. Research on cultural studies and popular culture suggests that there are preconceived ideas of the ways in which men should behave, which is heightened by being institutionalised. Conforming to the social ideologies, institutional values and codes that exist within a prison make a fundamental contribution to personal survival. A culture of machismo dominates prisons (Irwin and Owen, 2005; Sim, 2006) and men commonly display masculine attitudes to ensure social and psychological survival. These survival techniques often mean conforming and adapting to the normative behaviours and attitudes in order to fit in with the prison community and become socially accepted. (Viggiani, 2012) ‘Performing or projecting prison masculinities’ (Viggiani, 2012, para. 1) is common in trying to mask weaknesses or vulnerabilities in order to protect oneself in a prison where violence, exploitation, aggression and control are a key part of the value system. ‘Dog eat dog’ and ‘divide and rule’ (Viggiani, 2012, para. 1) succinctly sum up the values. If prisoners do not conform to prison codes and culture, they are often met with violence. Sim (2006) argues that violence is rampant within the prison system and it is violence that reinforces the ‘hierarchical arrangement inside’, especially in male prisons (2006, p. 109). Prisoners often put up physical, spatial and non-verbal barriers that repel communicative relationships involving positive touch in order to guard against vulnerability. In such a hostile environment keeping the body protected and isolated from others may be a ‘last defence of self’ (Houston, 2009, p. 99). Houston comments on the unspoken ‘no-touching rule’ (Houston, 2009, p. 100) that exists within male prisons which is hardly surprising when violence is endemic and straying from the codes surrounding touch may result in being physically hurt.


This may be greater in male prisons than female prisons as the inmates do not want to be viewed as weak or effeminate, therefore having to put up a guard for survival. Signs of weakness are pounced upon and the equation between ‘familiar touching, homosexuality and deviance’ (Houston, 2009, p. 99) is still common. The natural need for sexual and physical comfort is undermined by the sexually repressive environment of the prison. There is the fear that any form of tender touching between men may be viewed as homosexual and the negative connotations this carries may result in violence or sexual assault. Therefore, these natural urges to touch are suppressed, and can resurface in violent and aggressive ways in order to control, exert power and protect oneself.


However, Crewe argues that due to the ‘currents of late modernity’ (2005, p. 205) and the promotion of the individual over collective consensus, it was not unusual for prisoners to express ‘live and let live’ (Crewe, 2005, p. 205) attitudes over the choices peers made on how they lived their lives (within strict prison parameters) and the activities they chose to participate in.  ‘Although a hierarchy of preferred actions was discernable, it was neither rigid nor undisputed’ (Crewe, 2005, p. 205). Ultimately, the inmates decisions were often respected which is perhaps why participation in arts practice in prisons is generally accepted (Houston, 2009, p. 102). However, it has to be taken into consideration that each prison has a different environment with different social and institutional forces; therefore the extent to which taking part in arts practice is accepted may differ greatly between prisons.


2.4 ‘Inmate code’ and ‘Prisonization’

The pioneering study by American sociologist and criminologist Gresham M. Sykes’ The Society of Captives (1958) is considered one of the seminal texts regarding prisons, delinquency and the pains of imprisonment. This work, along with Clemmer’s ground-breaking publication The Prison Community (1940) can be viewed as the origin of ethnographic prison sociology. Sykes reasons that the intrinsic deprivations caused by imprisonment are highly influential in determining inmate culture, which theoretically is perhaps the clearest contribution of the text. The ‘inmate code’ (Crewe, 2007; 2009) is a set of guidelines, norms, and values that prisoners openly used as a guide to behaviour and developed as a shared response to the deprivations of imprisonment, which it ‘alleviated through the promotion of mutual aid, loyalty, and collective self esteem’ (Crewe, 2009, p. 4). Sykes reasoned that the roots of the code lay in the intrinsic properties of imprisonment. Sykes viewed the code as a cultural coping mechanism to help ease the pains and hardships of imprisonment; the spatial confines, lack of autonomy, control of daily structure and material and sexual deprivation. These contributed to a loss of liberty, self worth, identity and integrity which the ‘inmate code’ helped to subvert by providing a ‘common source of identity and self-respect’ (Crewe, 2007, p. 138), and a way to feel like a community. Other scholars argued that inmate code was determined by the specific aims of the institution, not in the fundamental properties of confinement (Grusky, 1959; Berk, 1966). Sykes outlined five key parts of the code, roughly summarized by Crewe as:


Don’t interfere with other inmates’ interests, or ‘never rat [grass] on a con’; ‘play it cool and do your own time’; don’t exploit or steal from other prisoners; ‘be tough, be a man’; and don’t ever side with or show respect to prison officers and representatives. (2007, p. 125)


These principles of the code demonstrate the norms and procedures that prisoners abide by, however they do not portray the subtleties of the code and the constant shifting and negotiations of power that sift through inmate community.


Clemmer’s The Prison Community (1940) had described this system before. His text was based on a three year study of 2,400 prisoners at the Menard Branch of the Illinois State Penitentiary. Similarly to Sykes, his text propagated that prisoners took on a set of values, guidelines and behaviours as they adapted to prison. To describe this he used the term ‘Prisonization’, which he describes as ‘taking on, in greater or lesser degree, the folkways, mores, customs and general culture of the penitentiary’ (1940, p. 299). This suggests that Clemmer made an almost direct link with incarceration and the effect on social behaviour.  However, the degree and extent that prisoners became prisonised is complex and fragmented, dependent on factors such as; the length of time spent in prison, the extent to which prisoners identified with outside society, how they integrated with primary groups within prison, an unstable personality, and the readiness to participate in “abnormal” sexual behaviour (Faine, 1973). Sykes and Clemmer’s texts are useful to gain an insight into the workings of a prison and to understand the pains of imprisonment, thus contextualising this study. Even though the texts were written in the 1950’s, they enable us to understand the intrinsic effects of incarceration that are still prevalent today as they are human pains, still valid and relevant to today’s society. They are transcendent of time. Even so, we have to note that these texts may now be outdated. Mays and Winfree (2002) argue that loyalties to the inmate code have shifted. ‘Loyalty now lies to one’s race, ethnic group, clique, or gang’ (Mays and Winfree, 2002, p. 184).


There have been drastic changes in the ways prisons are run and the codes that operate inside, due to changes in society, the growth of individualism over collectivism, and the huge increase in the number of those imprisoned. Therefore, we have to view concepts of the ‘inmate code’ and ‘Prisonization’ as elastic, fragmented and changeable. More recently, it has been suggested that some may find the control of an institution easier than living in the community. The transition from prison life to the community is a very challenging one, with over half of those released reoffending within 12 months (, no date). This ‘revolving door’ trap clearly shows that prison is not always a deterrent from a life a crime, calling into question whether the punishment endured is not harsh enough or that the rehabilitative schemes are not completely effective. Alternatively, some offenders may find it easier to survive having their days and routines structured for them instead of having to look after themselves. Readjusting to normal life after living under the control and regiment of an institution makes the transition of integration into society extremely difficult. There is not always the sufficient post release resettlement support in place for the marginalised which makes simple practical needs difficult to meet. Securing housing and employment are major issues, made more problematic by having a criminal record. Reforming family and friend relationships, which may have become strained due to imprisonment, as well as adjusting to no longer being in social isolation, could mean that to some individuals, prison seems like an easier option (Revolving Doors Agency, no date). Some offenders may even feel safer in prison than in the outside world, both physically and psychologically. Perhaps prison frees them from the worries of financial security, housing and looking after oneself and those around them. The support and rehabilitative interventions available in prison also offer a place where drug and alcohol support services, as well as emotional and educational support can be received.


2.5 Rehabilitation versus Punishment

There is a complex moral, ethical and economic debate over rehabilitation versus punishment and the extent to which prisons focus on each. This is multi-faceted and throws up many questions such as;


  • Imprisonment aims to punish, rehabilitate, deter and incapacitate. How do you find a balance between these and is a focus on all of them counterproductive and undermining? By nature the aims are conflicting, therefore making it difficult to translate these aims into practice. For example if a rehabilitative arts project was focused on prisoners learning new painting skills, thus helping them to gain confidence and self esteem, could a simultaneous focus on punishment be undermining the effects of the project, as it may reinforce feelings that prisoners are worthless beings who deserve to be locked up for their acts of criminality?


  • To what extent should we focus on rehabilitation as it is a logical way to reduce recidivism, reintegrate prisoners back into society and save tax payers money?


  • To what extent should we take into account the economic and social situations situation of offenders before entering prison? Does all crime deserve to be punished, even if it was out of necessity?


  • Is public protection of primary importance and more important than the rehabilitation of prisoners? To what extent should the focus be on public protection as opposed to putting the physical and emotional needs of the prisoners first?


  • Why should taxpayer’s money be used to rehabilitate individuals who have caused serious harm?


It is difficult to find answers for these questions as there is no moral or ethical truth. Fundamentally, it is dealing with people and humanity and is therefore subjective. There is, however, the general feeling that imprisonment should be justifiable to a frugal public and must be cheap and cost-effective, hence the appeal of incarceration over rehabilitation (O’Malley ac cited in Crewe, 2009). However, the orientation towards public security means that many rehabilitative arts projects and interventions are targeted less at the needs of the offending individuals’ psychological, physical and social needs but at safeguarding the public (Crewe, 2009, p. 16). The focus on satisfying external shareholders as opposed to enhancing the individuals’ wellbeing and catering for their social needs causes major conflict which can actually undermine the projects aimed to rehabilitate as they often don’t actually penetrate core problems. Understandably, in this time of economic recession it is difficult to justify to a sceptical public that money spent rehabilitating prisoners is worthwhile, especially when media and political institutions focus on serious, unusual, and random acts of criminality which heightens the perception that all criminals are dangerous animals, wholly responsible for their crimes and deserve to be locked up and punished (Crewe, 2009, p. 16). This has driven the desire to incarcerate more prisoners and have a harsher penal system. Often, social and economic deprivation before life in prison is not taken into account. Crewe (2009) argues that we are concealing a culture in which the real needs of prisoners are being ‘buried beneath calls for public protection at all costs’ resulting in prisoners being treated as objects as opposed to subjects. One psychologist working at HMP Wellingborough summarized ‘we do to prisoners a lot more, we don’t do with prisoners’ (Crewe, 2009, p. 134).


Rehabilitation schemes and the work of arts organisations such as Clean Break, Dance United, Music in Prisons, Good Vibrations and Geese Theatre have evidenced a number of clear benefits for their participants and have helped to reduce recidivism and integration back into communities. These benefits include; increases in pride, confidence and self esteem, development of life skills, increased sense of health and wellbeing, stronger ability to articulate emotion, increased sense of trust and teamwork, development of interpersonal communication skills and changes in behavioural and attitudinal outlook (Jermyn, 2006; Geese Theatre Company, no date; Good Vibrations, 2013). Whilst it can be difficult to justify rehabilitation schemes to the public and sometimes even to prison governors, economically it speaks for itself. ‘It costs on average £47,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. It only costs £20,000 to employ a writer in residence in prison. So if one of our writers helps someone to not reoffend for a year that’s £27,000 saved for the taxpayer. With 20 writers in residence at any one time, our writers work with almost 2,000 offenders every year (Arts Alliance, 2010, p. 14).




3.1 Community Dance

Community dance practice underpins dance practice in prisons. Although definitions of community dance are fluid as it is such a diverse field, there are key values, philosophies and objectives. It seeks to create opportunities and facilitate creative dance experiences that contribute positively to the individual and wider community. Led by professional dance practitioners, it encompasses a variety of styles and practices and does not discriminate by age, race, gender, health, ability or cultural background (Amans, 2008). Thompson cited by Amans argues that ‘dance is the birthright and the potential of all human beings’ (Amans, 2008, p. 5). There is a shared belief amongst community dance practitioners that everyone should have access to participation. Within prisons, dance practice seeks to treat offenders as individuals who have the right to enjoy dancing and expressing themselves creatively, regardless of the situation they have found themselves in.


To look at our lives differently, to find the possibility of change, requires first that we loosen the reflex of habitual responses – the shapes, postures and judgements which order our lives – and open our eyes and ears; tune ourselves to different frequencies and details, patterns of movement and shadow; listen, explore and get to know the many selves and voices that live within us (Tuffnell as cited in Cohen, 2010, p. 107).

3.2 Contact Improvisation

First conceived in 1972 by experimental dancer Steve Paxton in New York, contact improvisation was the name given to a set of movement ideas being explored by Paxton and his colleagues. Described as a duet that ‘embraces with no intent to copulate’ (Jowitt as cited in Novack, p. 67) and which according to Paxton aims to create a ‘totally integrated body’ (Paxton as cited in Novack, 1990, p. 69), it is a dance form which focuses on internally sensing movement through touch without conscious intention to form specific pathways, aesthetics or intentions. It is about dancing with your partner spontaneously in the moment and allowing the dance to continually unfold. Cynthia Bull describes the dance as ‘two bodies in a fluid metamorphosis of falls and suspensions, propelled by the momentum of the dancers’ weight’ (Bull, 1997, p. 275).


Underpinned by egalitarian philosophies, contact improvisation’s intrinsic values makes it a form that works well in institutionalised environments as it breaks down order and hierarchy. It is a dance for individuals and is based on the ethos of equality and freedom (Novack, 1990). All sense of hierarchy is dismissed, reinforced by the lack of distinction between genders and the all-inclusive nature of ‘jams’. Jams are ‘open social settings’ (Novack, 1990, p. 11) where people can go to experience and perform contact improvisation, amateurs and experienced improvisers alike. The accepting, democratic nature of contact is also reiterated through the movement mechanics which rely solely on an equal partnership for the movement to work. For a dialogue to be formed there needs to be a physical exploration through listening to each other’s bodies, and responding sensitively and spontaneously. This heightens awareness and can assist in ‘redefining the self as it forces the body to take an active role in perceiving itself in relation to the world’ (Pallant, 2006, p. 55), thus encouraging self reflection.


There are no solid rights or wrongs in contact improvisation, as it is not based on a rigid technique. This enables a movement exploration to take place without judgement, as there is no desired ideal to aspire to. Novack (1990) cites Nancy Stark Smith, one of the original contact dancers of the 1960’s and co-founder of Contact Quarterly:


The focus was on sensation, not particularly on style, on psychology, on aesthetics, on theater, on emotions. It was really pared down so that we could deepen our practice of the physical aspects of the work, so that we could find out what was possible instead of what looked nice. (p. 68)


With contact improvisation, we find ourselves in a continual state of flux which ‘requires ones bodily, aesthetic, and mental concepts to change’ (Kaltenbrunner, 1998, p. 181). With contact improvisation, one does not know where the movement will take them and with uncertainty can often come fear; a fear of being out of control, disorientated and powerless. As we ‘learn to be turned upside down or sideways and move through space in spiralling or curving motions rather than in the more usual axial motion of everyday’ (Novack, 1990, p. 151), we can learn how to accept change and the feeling of not knowing which path you are on, even finding enjoyment in these sensations. In a tightly structured prison environment, feelings of powerlessness and fear (English, 2013) are often intrinsic effects of incarceration and therefore to allow oneself to let go and accept the unknown could at first be daunting and confusing, especially when tensions run so highly in prisons. However, in doing so, you are opening yourself up to new possibilities and a freedom of expression that allows you to release and explore creatively, which ultimately is a liberating experience. In participating in contact improvisation, prisoners may feel like they can make choices for themselves and well as learning to trust their partners.


Touch is fundamental to contact improvisation, as it is through touch that the movement exploration occurs and partners connect. Although contact improvisation can be sensual in nature, the focus stays on physical sensations of touch and weight, not interpretations of the movement (Novack, 1990). In a prison environment, touch needs to be desexualised in order for a project to be successful. One way to do this would be to focus on touch as a functional and neutral tool, which enables the dance to take place. Touch can also be desexualised by fast paced and energetic workshops as to give participants ‘no time to think about their fears’ (Houston, 2009, p. 106).



Philosopher Jacques Derrida comments that touch can mean ‘to tamper with, to change, to displace, to call into question… a setting in motion, a kinetic experience’ (Derrida, 2005, p. 25). Touch can change, displace and tamper with the structure and order of life in prisons as it goes against the common, unwritten ‘no-touching rule’ (Houston, 2009, p. 100). There is an aversion of touch, due to inmate codes and unwritten rules, as well as unconscious responses due to touch being institutionalised and professionalised. Touching is seen as an invasion of privacy, exposing the ‘vulnerability associated with living on the margins of society’ (Houston, 2009, p. 100). In a setting where privacy is severely limited as prisoners living and bathing space is often shared, any form of physical contact and touch can be seen as an intrusion of what little personal space and privacy one has. This can often result in aggression or violence as a way to control and exert power, protect one’s self and mask vulnerabilities.


Even so, there may be feelings of needing to be touched and craving the physical intimacy and support of another person, both sexual and non-sexual. The absence of touch can be ‘just as much a felt experience as touching’ (Bannon and Holt, 2011, p. 219). English (2013) comments on his personal experiences of imprisonment in Brazil stating that ‘within even the worst contexts, there’s still this appreciation of the touch of another person’. The depravity of physical and sexual intimacy (Crewe, 2007; 2009) in prison therefore make contact improvisation a risky form to carry out as the participant’s natural responses to touch may be one of vulnerability, violence, power, sexual desire, or perhaps remind them of missing the touch of loved ones. When all freedom is taken away and male prisoners do not have the power to make choices for themselves, even ‘simple touching . . . can come with a huge weight of emotion behind it’ (English, 2013). This can bring to the surface deep rooted or suppressed feelings (Kaltenbrunner, 1998, p. 181) which ‘potentially unlock fears of violence… and of emotional upheaval’ (Houston, 2009, p. 100). However, contact improvisation can assist in subverting negative urges, allowing feelings to surface physically in a non-confrontational or violent way. It ‘potentially ignites hopes of communication, hopes of relating to others without needing to close down emotionally, to dismantle the untouchable ‘armoured’ front’ (Houston, 2009, p.100), thus assisting in learning new, positive behaviours that rely on honesty and trust. It can break down the guard and safety barriers that prisoners so commonly display, as one has to venture into new unfamiliar territories with no safety net of distance. This can lead to gaining a deeper insight into oneself as it encourages reflection and a way to confront issues, leading to an increase in emotional maturity. To be in contact with someone is allowing one’s self to touched, vulnerable and physically intimate (Kaltenbrunner, 1998, p. 181) which can bring about a healing and transformative process.


Physical contact is a fundamental part of human existence and is a biological and developmental need. Clinical studies on the therapeutic effects of touch have evidenced the importance of its use in rehabilitation, both physically and psychologically. Touch has the ability to reduce anxiety, provide comfort and reassurance, reduce defensiveness, improve relationships, increase ones sense of health and well-being and help to heal the body (Field, 2003). The human instinct to touch others is a natural response. If somebody is upset or distressed you may attempt to comfort them with a hand on the shoulder or by giving them a hug. Montagu writes in his book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, (1986, p. 243) ‘the communications we transmit through touch constitute the most powerful means of establishing human relationships, the foundation of experience….it would greatly help our rehumanization if we would pay closer attention to the need we all have for tactual experience’.


Furthermore, there is a shared belief in literature documented on tactile stimulation in early development of babies and children that touch is essential for healthy physical, emotional and cognitive development (Caulfield, 2000; Piper and Stronach, 2008). Indeed, it is through physical contact that parents first bond and form emotional attachments with their child. Benjamin Spock comments ‘every baby needs to be smiled at, talked to, played with, fondled – gently and lovingly – just as much as she needs vitamins and calories. That’s what will make her a person who loves people and enjoys life’ – (Spock as cited in Caufield, 1998, p. 1). Our emotional and intellectual development, the ways in which we identify ourselves within the world and our roles and our boundaries are deeply rooted in ‘early engagements with touch’ (Bannon and Holt, 2011 p. 220) and have a profound effect on later life.


Within society, touch holds an incredibly complex and somewhat problematic position. It has become increasingly marginalised and disregarded in its use for knowledge and relationship formation due to its association with abuse, pain, intrusion and professional risk (Piper and Stronach, 2008). Although touch can have nurturing, playful, affectionate, loving and caring qualities, we are constantly bombarded with negative media stories surrounding the inappropriateness of touch. We live in a society where casual touch with a stranger is prohibited, we apologise if we brush someone and will often do our best to avoid eye contact. It appears that a ‘no touch discourse permeates our lives’ (Piper and Stronach, p. 2) and that ‘fear has led to objectifying the body as a distancing strategy’ (Crossley, 1995, p.43). We have become scared to touch each other for fear that it could be misconstrued by another person, but in doing so we are rejecting one of the most fundamental and potent of communicators and are denying a mass of sensory information which has the potential for us to learn so much from. It appears that we are going through what Piper and Stronach refer to as a ‘moral panic’ (2008, p. 10) surrounding touch, becoming fearful in using it in educational and institutional settings and consequently devaluing its importance. In Bannon and Holt’s journal article Touch: Experience and Knowledge they argue that if ‘we diminish or become fearful and so do not teach and learn with touch, we devalue one of our most basic and informative sensations’ (2011 p. 219). With many ethical and moral frameworks in place to try and keep to the “right” sort of touch it seems that the ‘professionalization of touch appears to have removed it from the world of the ‘natural’ to the world of the ‘technical’’ (Piper and Stronach, 2008, p. 135) with the inherent danger of reducing the capacity for feeling (Tobin, 1997).


Touch is one of the most basic and informative givers of sensory information and is home to the largest sensory organ – the skin. Anzieu (1989) refers to the skin as an organ that feels and remembers – the ‘skin ego’ (p. 105). It is the ‘original parchment which preserves, like palimpsest, the erased, scratched out, written over first outlines of an ‘original’ pre-verbal writing’ (Anzieu, 1989, p. 105). The skin retains information and learns through touch. Touch is distinctively unique as it is a sense that resides and is felt all over the body. Unlike any of the other senses, it cannot be isolated to a specific body part. Bannon and Holt (2011) argue that because of this we have become mistrusting of its use and accountability for experience. It is the sense which became differentiated into the other and its lack of specificity may lead to a sense of vulnerability due to its ambiguous location. In a prison environment legitimatising the use of touch within a newly formed group is one way to overcome barriers to participating in dance and contact improvisation workshops. The ambiguity of touch needs to be directly addressed through clear, direct and functional intentions. Having a clear policy that touch will be involved and verbalising everything, especially toward the start of a project (Bynoe, 2013), is a useful tool for the effective use of touch in male prisons.


Existentialist phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty emphasises the body as the main site for knowing the world and ourselves within it. (Merleau-Ponty, 1945) He places our body at the centre of perception contrasting to longstanding philosophical tradition before him which placed consciousness as the primary source of knowledge. In Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945) he explores the notion that everything is known and perceived through the body – ‘All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own particular point of view . . .’ (p. 9). This is substantiated by Schenck who states that the ‘body is our centre of activity in the world’ (1986, p. 44). It is through the body and through touch that we can define boundaries. This is useful for thinking about how touch and physical contact can be useful for rehabilitation. If touch gives us our sense of perception, we can begin to make sense of who we are through touch and start to readjust our bodily thinking.



I have conducted a written interview with Tomislav English, a third year student at London Contemporary Dance School. In early 2012, Tomislav spent over a week in a male prison in Brazil, sharing a small cell with eight other men. Being experienced in contact improvisation, Tomislav is useful for understanding the benefits and challenges of contact improvisation in male prisons, as well as thoughts on how to approach projects and the complex issues surrounding touch in penal environments. It has to be taken into consideration that the prison Tomislav experienced in Brazil has a completely different culture, system and code to prisons in western society. Nevertheless, the fear and feelings of spatial, material and emotional depravity are still very real and are relevant wherever you may be incarcerated.


I also conducted a spoken interview with Michelle Bynoe, one of the dancers working with Dance United in their work in women’s prisons and men’s young offender institutions between 2000 and 2007. These included HMP Styal, Bullwood, Holloway and HMYOI Wetherby. The projects were modelled on professional dance training and were focused on gaining contemporary dance skills, accreditation in literacy and other key skills and developing confidence, self-esteem and peer esteem. All projects culminated in a performance (Bramley and Jermyn, 2006).




5.1 Project approach and Analysis

From conducting these interviews it is evident that the way you approach a dance project in male prisons is one the most fundamental aspects in procuring success. Using Dance United’s work in prisons as a model and drawing on Motionhouse’ 18 month contact improvisation project in prisons, I have examined what I believe to be the most important aspects of their approach and have analysed this. This has enabled me to create a scheme of work and a lesson plan drawing on the interviews and literature from the arts sector and criminal justice sector.


Dance United’s three-week intensive projects in prisons involved an ‘integrated team approach’ (Bynoe, 2013) with a mixture of dancers and non dance staff with backgrounds in youth offending. The many barriers that the participants faced in these settings such as – ‘disengagement, not wanting to join in, sitting down, leaning against the wall, arguing’  (Bynoe, 2013), were met by an integrated all round team who would ‘acknowledge the difficulties’ and then readily implement strategies to help find resolutions to any problems, thus guiding participants through the process. There would be two people floating around the room to offer encouragement, talk to participants, get them integrated back into the group and help overcome any barriers (Bynoe, 2013). This would allow the dance process to run as smoothly as possible and consequently allow the participants to gain as much as possible from the process. However, the constant disruptions may upset the flow of the sessions for both the participants and facilitators and may hinder the overall success of the project; however this would be difficult to measure.


The participants were treated as a company of dancers, not criminals who had committed crimes and deserved to be punished (Bynoe, 2013). By treating offenders as individuals who have the capability to express positively and creatively portrays that they of value to society which consequently, instils self-worth and belief in themselves. This can help in changing negative behaviours into positive ones as it restores a sense of purpose, belonging and hope. There was the strong belief that participating in a ‘professional experience of dance would engage and challenge them and the movement itself would guide them on a journey’ (Bynoe, 2013). It was not simply used a social tool. The challenge of having to engage with dance whilst focusing on maintaining high standards can help to restore a sense of purpose and ownership. The dance activity delivered had intrinsic creative and artistic value and through the dance process, participants started to discover qualities inside themselves (Bynoe, 2013).


The pacing, dynamism and energy flow of the workshops is pivotal in procuring success (Bynoe, 2013; Houston 2009, p. 106), especially in the early stages of workshops. By charging in with a fast paced and highly physical approach participants will not have too much time to think about what they are doing (Motionhouse, no date; Houston, 2009; Bynoe, 2013), thus removing some of the fear. Giving the work the physicality of martial arts or gym work can help to alleviate feelings that dance is effeminate or homoerotic. (English, 2013; Houston, 2009, p. 106) One prisoner participating in the Dancing Inside, a creative workshop project led by Motionhouse at HMP Dovegate therapeutic community commented that contact improvisation was not dance ‘for pansies’ (Anon 10 cited in Houston, 2009, p. 106) as the movements felt athletic and had a ‘macho quality’ (Houston, 2009, p. 106). This helps to remove some of the emotional weight and is a useful tactic for desexualising touch. As a female dance facilitator interested in working in male prisons, the desexualisation of touch is vital for my professional development and satisfaction. Certain measures would have to be taken including wearing loose fitting clothing to help remove any awkwardness or temptation. Some participants may be imprisoned for violent or sexual crimes against women and consequently could feel uneasy about touching a female dancer for fear that the touch could be misconstrued, as they may still feel the stigmas attached to the offence. Equally, it would be personally daunting to experience touch with participants who may be imprisoned for crimes of this nature, which calls to question whether they are suitable participants. We could argue whether it is important to know about the nature of the crimes prisoners have committed. If staying true to the approach of treating the participants as dancers and not as criminals, it seems necessary to remain ignorant in order to stay neutral, however, when dealing with something as risky as touch, it may be useful to know as you may want to assess whether putting yourself in that situation is the right thing to do personally.


It is important that the work is challenging but achievable so that participants have a sense of ownership and belonging (Amans, 2013). Too simple and it runs the risk of participants losing interest but if it is too difficult, participants may give up, feeling defeated. Creating the right balance can be achieved through making sure that everyone is capable of completing the first task of the session (Bynoe, 2013) as this will create a positive working environment, helping boost participants’ self-esteem and giving them the confidence to push themselves in the following part of the session as they already feel as though they have achieved something.


In Motionhouse 18-month Dancing Inside project, Kevin Finnan who was leading the workshops employed the use of motivational language and ‘non didactic facilitation methods’ (Houston, 2009, p. 104) to increase confidence. In a prison environment where there is often a general dislike and distrust of power and authority (English, 2013; Crewe, 2009, p. 392), deliberately not using language associated with imposing orders is a useful strategy for engaging participants and establishing a good working relationship early on. If prisoners feel like there is a level playing field, they are more likely to respond positively and engage with the ideas on offer. Making every individual feel ‘absolutely necessary’ (Bynoe, 2013) by valuing their own creative movement ideas and getting them to demonstrate movements (not just the professional dancers) confirms that their contributions are valued and that you have belief in them and their skills, thus boosting confidence in their own abilities. It also helps to create a positive group dynamic and sense of a strong team. One prisoner participating in Dancing Inside commented:


Kevin is brilliant, brilliant … He made you feel at ease. Although Kevin was an authority figure like the guards, he turned it upside down. He’d take on your ideas, he’d get you involved, and it’s a different thing. All the dancers were like that … Actually having people who treat me as me. That was his way, dealing with me as I am today. (Anon 2 cited in Houston, 2009, p. 104)


5.2 Challenges

There are many challenging practicalities in setting up a creative dance workshop project in male prisons. Even accommodating projects can be difficult as they can upset the structure and order inside. (Bynoe, 2013) Fitting around a prison regime requires that the organisations or practitioners leading the project to ‘interact appropriately with complex, hierarchical institutions with particular views on discipline and security’ (Bramley and Jermyn, 2006). Understanding the institutional context is vital for communicative and successful partnerships between prisons and outside organisations. Equally, prisons may have conflicting areas of priority and therefore may not fully commit to projects, resulting in short term one off projects.


Furthermore, prison staff may not necessarily see the value in dance projects as they may assume that they would not work in a male prison environment, and therefore not fully embrace them. (Bynoe, 2013; Bramley and Jermyn, 2006) In Dance United’s Third Symphony – Men at War, a project with young offenders that aimed to explore good practice in dance and social exclusion settings, some uniformed staff did not view the increased confidence and self esteem of the participants as a positive thing (Bramley and Jermyn, 2006). Perhaps they thought that increased confidence could lead to more hassle for the staff or even had the potential for dangerous actions to occur. This highlights the importance that all partnerships have to be clear in how the project can support offenders in order for it to be as beneficial as possible. Perhaps evidencing previous successes of other dance projects in prison settings may help to increase confidence in the projects.


Challenging preconceptions that dance is effeminate and tackling the macho attitudes that are prevalent in prison is one of the largest barriers to participation and can easily upset the recruitment process, as offenders may not want to associate themselves with such activities in order to keep up a certain image or to guard against vulnerability. Many may view dance as an effeminate activity (Bramley and Jermyn, 2006) and the thought of dancing with other men may be extremely off-putting. Therefore the way you approach the sessions as well as advertise the project is highly influential in changing perceptions and attitudes. English (2013) suggests that it is pivotal to ‘know your audience’, perhaps looking at the benefits of a project from a health point of view with a focus on games or competition as this would be useful in playing off men’s testosterone, helping the activity to be perceived as more masculine. To start from an artistic point of view could be off-putting and extremely challenging as finding ‘connections to ones artistic side, although encouraged, is probably not something that many inmates would be interested in talking about publicly’ (English, 2013). Once the project has started, participants may begin to understand how much hard work, skill and time goes into creating and rehearsing for a performance, thus realising it is far from effeminate.


5.3 Measuring Success

Measuring the success of a dance project in a criminal justice setting is complex as many of the outcomes are qualitative and are more focused on human behavioural changes rather than figures that can be quantified. Moreover, each participant and facilitator will have had a different experience of the project and its outcomes and will have taken part for different reasons. I will go on to look at measuring the success of Dance United’s prison work.


One of the most obvious measures of success of Dance United’s work in prisons, but not to be underestimated was that participants were returning to each session and taking on board the facilitator’s feedback and comments. Whereas one participant may have ‘walked out three times… he’s never done a whole session in his life so he is actually doing well… If another person who never normally walks out is walking out constantly then you know there are issues’ (Bynoe, 2013). The differentiation of each individual is fundamental to understanding the ever evolving needs of the participants and is underpinned by ‘regular discussions’, ‘observation of the group’ and ‘constant reflection’ (Bynoe, 2013) both as a whole group and between the facilitators. This would enable any changes to be made to either the structure or content so that everyone was satisfied with the project. Upon completion of the project there would be an in-depth evaluation to identify what could be improved and what worked efficiently.


A change in the participant’s perspective or attitudes could also be perceived as a measure of success. Bynoe (2013) evidenced improvements in ‘communication, awareness of others, confidence and readiness to learn’ and a decrease in the rates of self-harm. However, the process of tracking people upon release is one of great difficulty, due to many offenders coming from chaotic, unstable backgrounds and leading unpredictable lives (Dance United, 2013), thus making it hard to gauge how long these effects last for.


The rates of re-offending were lowered both in the prisons and in their work with young offenders serving non-custodial sentences (Bradford YOT and Leeds YOS) Of those significantly involved with Dance United’s work between 2006 and 2008, fewer than 33% of young offenders have reoffended comparing to local rates of 70% (Dance United, 2013). This demonstrates that dance as a context and process has the ability to transform and engage offenders. Committing to a project and being engaged physically, creatively, and intellectually can alter perceptions and allow offenders to re-evaluate negative behaviours and attitudes, making them more reflective. Possibilities start to open up which can have a ‘big impact on your usual behaviour … and habits’ (Bynoe, 2013) and can consequently cause positive changes.


Although the arts don’t single-handedly reduce rates of recidivism, they enable people to desist from crime through changing attitudes, thought processes and increasing confidence and self esteem. Prisoners can start to see themselves as creative individuals instead of hiding behind the ‘false identity’ (Jones and Schmid, 2001, p. 149) of the prison world, which can diminish definitions of self, due to incarceration.



Dance has the inherent ability to help promote connection in a culture of isolation and social exclusion. This research has evidenced that involvement in a process of dance, and more specifically contact improvisation, in a prison setting creates a community that no longer accepts social exclusion as a way of being. It challenges isolation through its intrinsic principles and values. It upsets the order of life inside prisons, challenges the ‘inmate code’, and disrupts normative behaviours and attitudes by giving the space and time for an expressive voice to come through. Once incarcerated, identity and integrity become severely marred as when freedom is taken away, the sense of self can start to disintegrate. Dance subverts this and can enable one to re-find integrity and agency. This can restore a sense of hope and opens up the possibility of change and choice. A choice to change old habits, behaviours and attitudes. Contact improvisation and the nature of touch within it, encourage a communicative non-confrontational dialogue which allows trust to develop and can help one in seeing the world from a new perspective. Touch encourages one to take an active role in the world as by nature it is active – it is a reciprocal, two-way gesture. To touch and to be touched encourages connection and engagement which are pivotal in the rehabilitation of prisoners as it provides skills that are transferable to everyday day life and can consequently help to reduce recidivism.


We need to work with offenders as individuals who are of value to society. Everyone has the potential to be creative and artistic and prisoners need to be granted the opportunity to express and explore the other sides and voices that exist within them. Through the conflicting aims of the criminal justice system to punish and rehabilitate, we are burying the real needs of prisoners and are not penetrating the core problems. Instead we are brushing them under the carpet and hoping that through spatial segregation, prisoners are “not our problem”. The rehabilitation of prisoners and rates of reoffending are our problem and need to be tackled. Dance has the ability to specifically target and draw out issues that are deeply embedded in the fabric of the body and mind and by allowing these issues to surface, it enables one to deal with them. Dance has the ability to alter the prisoner’s often tarnished perspective of the world they live in and find new ways of relating to others that does not involve violence or confrontation. Ultimately, participating in dance is an empowering, liberating and freeing experience.







Anzieu, D. (1989) The skin ego. London: Yale University Press.

Arts Alliance. (2010) What really works? Arts with offenders. [Pamphlet]. London: The Arts Council England.


Arts Alliance. (2012) Annual review 2012/2013. Available at (Accessed: 24 May 2013).


Amans, D. (2008) An introduction to community dance practice. Hampshire: Macmillan Publishers Limited.


Archibald, L. (2012) Dancing, singing, painting, and speaking the healing story: Healing through Creative Arts. Ontario: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.


Bannon, F. and Holt, D. (2011) ‘Touch: Experience and knowledge’, Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, 3(1 and 2), pp. 215-220. DOI: 10.1386/jdsp.3.1-2.215_1 (Accessed: 14 January 2013).


Berk, B. (1966) ‘Organizational goals and inmate organization’, American Journal of Sociology, 71(March), pp.522-524.


Bosworth, M. (1999) Endangering resistance: Agency and power in women’s prisons. Aldershot: Dartmouth.


Bosworth, M. and Carrabine, E. (2001) ‘Reassessing resistance’, Punishment and Society, 3(4), pp. 501-515.


Bramley, I. and Jermyn, H. (2006) Dance included: Towards good practise in dance and social inclusion [Report]. London: Arts Council England.


Bull, C. (1997) Meaning in motion: New cultural studies of dance. Durhan: Duke University Press.

Bynoe, M. (2013) Interview with Michelle Bynoe. Interviewed by Sophie Thorpe. 22 April.


Carrabine, E. (2005) ‘Prison riots, social order and the problem of legitimacy’, British Journal of Criminology, 45, pp. 896-913.


Caulfield, R. (2000) ‘Beneficial effects of tactile stimulation on early development’

Early Childhood Education, 27(4) pp. 255-257.


Castellano, M. Brant. (2006). Final report of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Volume I: A healing journey: Reclaiming wellness. [Report]. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.


Clemmer, D. (1940) The prisoner community. New York: Holt, Rhineheart and Winston.


Codd, H. (2003) ‘Women Inside and Out: Prisoners’ Partners, Women in Prison and the Struggle for Identity’, Internet Journal of Criminology, pp. 1-19. [Online]. Available at (Accessed: 28 April 2013).


Cohen, S. (2010) ‘Slightless touch and touching witnessing: Interplays of Authentic Movement and Contact Improvisation’ Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices, 2(1), pp. 103-108. DOI: 10.1386/jdsp.2.1.103_1 (Accessed: 14 January 2013).


Creative Scotland, (2013) Arts and Criminal Justice. Available at: (Accessed: 20 May 2013).


Crossley, N. (1995) ‘Merleau-Ponty, the elusive body and carnal sociology’, Body & Society, 1(1) pp. 43-63.


Crewe, B. (2005) Codes and conventions: The terms and conditions of contemporary inmate values. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.


One response to “Contact Improvisation: A Tool for Rehabilitation? by Sophie Thorpe (Verve 2014)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s