Demetrius Gatson danced her way out of prison last August. On Saturday, February 16, she'll visit Boulder to teach a dance class.
“When I started dancing, I was at my lowest in prison," says Gatson of her time in Dance to Be Free, a program in the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. "Before I went to prison in 2014, I had just started menopause, and so I got depressed, and I was just broke down, like I was having these hot flashes. My mind was playing tricks on me; I didn’t really know what was going on. I stayed like that for almost two years, and then I started dancing, and the hot flashes started to diminish."
Dance to Be Free was founded by Boulder-based dance instructor Lucy Wallace, a former owner of the Alchemy of Movement dance studio. With a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology from Naropa University, Wallace specializes in trauma that manifests itself in the body. Through spiritual movement, she wanted to help incarcerated women heal.
She remembers being equal parts excited and nervous as she hit the play button for Depeche Mode on July 1, 2015, kicking off her first class in the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.
“I was afraid that the women would be resentful," Wallace recalls. "I had all these assumptions and myths from Hollywood and Orange is the New Black. I was scared that they would be like, ‘Who’s the blond girl coming in to teach us?’ — and that was immediately shattered as soon as I walked in."
Before long, the incarcerated women realized this wasn't going to be a normal dance class. “This is spiritual," one observed, and Wallace knew the woman understood.
"She got that it’s not just about exercise," Wallace says. "I kind of let the dance do its work, and the message is translated because I don’t need to preach. I don’t need to convince. I don’t need to talk about their past and talk about their trauma. There is this invisible message that it’s healing, and they get it without having to talk about it.”
Since 2015, Wallace has introduced the program to thirteen prisons in eight states. On one occasion, one of her groups performed for Orange Is the New Black author and activist Piper Kerman. Next week, dancers incarcerated in Marion County, Florida's infamous Lowell Correctional Institution will dance for their mothers. One day, Wallace hopes to convince Oprah Winfrey to join her at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility for Women, south of her home town of Kosciusko, Mississippi.
While procedures vary from prison to prison, Wallace always provides the music and trains inmates to teach her dances. Then she steps back and lets the women run the show.
“Demetrius was one of our strongest teachers in Lincoln,” Wallace recalls.
To help her lead classes in Lincoln, Gatson says her activities director gave her a boombox. Jukeboxes at the correctional facility cost $1 per song, so she listened to Wallace's CDs over and over as she practiced in her bunk.
"Teaching gave me responsibility," Gatson recalls. “Prison is prison. It’s meant to correct, it’s not meant to punish. So if you use it with that mindset that you’re there to correct the wrongs and learn some new things, that’s what you’ll get out of it.”
Raised by a single mother in north Omaha, Gatson was the oldest of four. Her mother loved R&B, and her grandmother loved gospel and jazz. As a child, she often stood in front of a big mirror in her grandmother's house pretending she was a choir director.
Then, Gatson says, she spent fifteen years in the justice system for repeatedly writing bad checks.
"I went in and out of prison because I didn’t have the money to do the things I wanted to do, so I found the wrong ways to get money," she reflects. “Now I don’t have a lot of money or the best car or the best home, but I am successful in my ventures, and I am content. I don’t want more than what I already have, which was my problem when I went to prison."
After being released in August 2018, Gatson began studying to become a social worker and works for the TRADE — Tackling Recidivism and Developing Employability — program, through the Center for People in Need, helping other inmates transition back into society.
“Fifteen years of my life, I’ve been in and out and in and out of prison, and of course I see the type of things that the staff do, I see how they act. Some of them act like they really don’t care; they’re just there for a paycheck. And then you find those few who do care. They want what’s best for you," she says. "I want to be that resource for [prior inmates] so they can be like, ‘Hey, I’m having problems with this,’ because I know. I’ve been there before."
Gatson will teach a dance class at 11 a.m. Saturday, February 16, at Block 1715, 1750 30th Street, Boulder. Drop-in classes cost $15, and kids are welcome.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.