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Activism takes the stage

Pat Graney believes there is a connection between art and social activism, and she is pursuing it as a choreographer and dancer who reaches out to women in prison.

As part of a project of the Florida Dance Festival, Graney and another performer, Rhodessa Jones, are working with women inmates of the Florida Correctional Institution at Lowell, which is about 90 minutes north of Tampa. Graney and Jones lead movement and storytelling workshops for women in the prison.

The first time Graney was in a women's correctional institution was last year, when her dance company performed at a facility in Massachusetts. "It was scary because of all the fantasies we had about the women there," she said. "We thought they were going to be so different, and it was an incredibly transforming experience to have women in prison be so moved by us."

Graney's all-woman dance troupe is featured at the Florida Dance Festival, which begins its weeklong run in Tampa Sunday. The festival, sponsored by the Florida Dance Association, has been an annual event since 1979. This year, as many as 600 dancers, choreographers, teachers and students are expected to partake of the 130 classes and workshop at the University of South Florida. There are performances by Florida dancers as well as nationally known companies. Along with the Pat Graney Company, other headliners include Anita Feldman Tap and Ballet Espanol Rosita Segovia.

Graney and company will be performing a work titled Faith, which is a history of women using visual imagery from Renaissance art to modern-day merchandising. Excerpts from Faith are what the company performed for the women prisoners in Massachusetts.

When Graney, whose company is based in Seattle, was contacted about appearing at the Florida festival, she was asked by the association's executive director, Rebecca Terrell, if she had any special projects in mind. "I told Rebecca that I'd like to continue with the prison thing," Graney said.

The idea struck a chord with Terrell, who had been casting about for community projects in which to involve the festival. The dance association is based in Miami, and its connection to the Tampa Bay area was pretty much limited to the festival.

"We felt we had to practice what we preach and have the festival make a tangible commitment to the community," she said. "We believe art can change lives, and these women in prison will be back in the community. Many have been sexually assaulted, have been brutalized, and movement exercises can be a healthy way for them to experience their physical being. For these women to talk about their lives in groups can be very empowering."

Terrell formed a steering committee in the bay area, and she went about securing financial support for the project from the National Performance Network and the Ryka ROSE Foundation, which is financed by a women's sportswear company. Thus was born the dance association's project, called "Keeping the Faith."

The involvement of Jones, head of the Cultural Odyssey theater company in San Francisco, gives the project credibility. She had participated in California's artists-in-the-prisons program. Since 1987, when she taught an aerobics class in jail, she has worked in women's correctional facilities around the country. She formed the Medea Project, which conducts theater workshops for incarcerated women.

"The time is right for this work," Jones said. "More and more women are going to jail, and they're burning up with rage. Nationally, 85 percent of the women in prison are of color; 50 percent are black."

Jones will give performances during the festival of a series of monologues on the theme of "an artist's response to the futility of incarceration."

Graney and Jones made a presentation about the project last Saturday afternoon to a group of about 50 artists, educators, social workers and others at a gallery on the University of Tampa campus. The two led the group through some of the exercises they use in workshops.

The performers and Terrell had visited the Lowell prison for the first time the previous day. Terrell said correctional officers there had been "incredibly welcoming" about the project.

Terrell expressed her hope that the dance festival's project will lead to a continuing relationship between the Tampa Bay arts community and prisons and jails, prerelease programs for incarcerated women, halfway houses and battered women's shelters. For that to happen will take a commitment by local people.

"In many ways," Terrell told the group, "the legacy of this project will be you."

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