Nathan Corrál: “Dimitri Chamblas and the Power of Dance”
Dimitri Chamblas and the Power of Dance
Choreographer, dancer, educator, and artistic director Dimitri Chamblas arrived in Los Angeles five years ago when he was appointed the dean at Cal Arts. Out in Los Angeles is where Chamblas connected with Cal State Univeristy Los Angeles’ Dr. Roy, and he learned about the work he was doing in prisons with an organization called Words Uncaged. Words Uncaged uses art and narrative therapy workshops througouht California prisons. Dr. Roy asked Dimitri if wanted to do a lecture in the prison. Chamblas “spontaneously said yes” to the invite, but he was a bit unsure of what to expect. Going into my interview with Dimitri I was not sure what to expect myself. I was not familiar with his work, and the Words Uncaged organization was still fairly new to me. Our interview took place over facetime with me in Los Angeles and Dimitri up in San Francisco preparing for a show.
Dimitri’s lecture took place at the prison of Lancaster where he spoke to five men. To Dimitri, lecturing felt a little strange given his background as a dancer. Dimitri thought, “I’m a dancer and I’d probably prefer that we would kind of move together.” In male prisons, there is a masculine stigma around the art of dance, but Chamblas applauds the five, courageous men who were brave enough to attend his lecture. At the end of their session, Chamblas asked the men to tell them about themselves as they had the need to express themselves not just through the art of dance but also in words. Chamblas was touched by what the men shared with him which led to him wanting to return the following week. After hearing their stories, Chamblas felt attached to the men. It would be weird if he never saw them again after learning so much about them. Before leaving, the men asked Dimitri if they could bring their cellmates to his lecture the following week.
Great things were happening with Dimitri and the group of men he was working with, but unfortunately, the Covid–19 Pandemic put a halt to everything. Unfortunately, the group of men was disbanded during the span of the pandemic because some of them were transferred or released. One of the members that was transferred to the prison of Chino reached out to Dr. Roy asking if he could bring back the dance program. In Chino, a new program of Embodied Narrative Therapy emerged. This two-hour session featured reading, writing, and physical activity. In the session, the men would go from writing, to telling stories, to dancing, and vice versa. Dimitri notes the way that the men approached the session allowed them to really open up to one another sharing things they have never shared. In addition to the effort the men put into the program, the prison of Chino was extremely welcoming, and they understood what this program brought to their community.
This program allowed many emotions to resurface. One of the men that Chamblas called on to demonstrate an exercise was nervous. During the demonstration, Chamblas could feel the tension in the man’s body. After the exercise, the man shared that the physical touch from Chamblas reinvited memories of violence. After talking about those feelings with Chamblas, it allowed the man to start his journey on the path of healing.
I ended my interview with Dimitri moved and impacted by the stories he shared with me. As a queer man, I have always struggled with the concept of masculinity. At times I feel self conscious that I may be acting “too feminie” and at other times I am not being “gay enough.” Despite how progressive society has become, a stigma remains around men embracing what people deem to be feminine qualities. In an environment overrun by toxic masculinity, it is not surprising that only a few men showed up to Dimitri’s lecture. It speaks volumes how powerful the work Dimitri did with the men in their first session for them to aski Dimitri if they could bring their cell mates the following week. Dimitri and the men broke down the walls of toxic masculinity, getting in touch with their emotions. I firmly believe that self expression is vital whether it be through speech, dance, art, and so on. I never spoke about my queer identity until I started going to therapy. So many feelings and emotions surfaced that helped me heal and accept myself. I attended an all-boys, Catholic high school, and the environment of toxic masculinity there prevented me, scared me from ever addressing my queerness until after I graduated. The fear of being outed ate me alive. Hearing Dimitri talk about his experience and the way the men became vulnerable in an environment where men are meant to be tough and closed off was inspiring. I applaud Dimitri for the way he created a safe place for men to express themselves through words and dance in order to heal and grow as individuals.
Now Chamblas is preparing for his Slow Show at the Museum of Contemporary Art on October 25th. Slow Show will feature fifty-five people from the Los Angeles community. Chamblas notes, “we all have some little dancers in our bodies that are just waiting for the opportunity to go out.”