Kristie Mortimer is a Dance Educator with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. She has a PhD in Dance Studies and as the recipient of the 2020 Caroline Plummer Fellowship in Community Dance, administered by University of Otago, she wrote a resource to support teaching dance in prisons and in the wider community.

Kristie Mortimer teaches dance at Arohata Women's Prison. The image is of women in a line, wearing brown sweaters with the words AWP on their backs. In her role at the RNZB, she teaches dance in Arohata and Rimutaka Prisons, and is teaching a 30-week dance programme (on hold because of COVID-19) at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility.

In November, Kristie joined Beth Hill, Northland Region Corrections Facility, and Rue-Jade Morgan, Otago Corrections Facility, where they talked on a video about arts and education in New Zealand prisons. The video was presented at the 14th International Australasian Correctional Education And Training Conference.

You can watch the video.

Q. What are the key skills prisoners learn in your dance classes?

A. As facilitators of the dance class, we can use dance as a vehicle to develop various skills for the men and women, which they can then utilise in their wider learning, workplaces and daily lives. Physical skills are the most obvious, including movement co-ordination, spatial awareness and physical fitness.

Kristie Mortimer teaches dance  to men in Rimutaka Prison. She is in a gymnasium, with a green floor Other skills include:

  • Teamwork and group co-operation through sharing the space and moving with others, including moving down the room in groups or lines as well as group work when learning and creating movements.
  • Communication skills and personal discipline through reflective discussions, sharing ideas with others, and knowing when to speak up or step back and allow space for others to share their ideas.
  • Commitment – by turning up every week and working collectively towards learning and creating dances, which are performed either informally or formally at the end of our projects.
  • Positive embodiment – through individual and collective dance activities, reconnecting with their bodies via free expression and movement.

Q. What’s some advice for others wanting to teach dance in prisons?

A. I’m constantly aware of the need to adjust my delivery style to the group of men and women I’m engaging with. And I’m always learning! Here’s some advice:

  • Build relationships with Corrections staff As a volunteer or contractor, we’re entering a highly regulated environment that we need to fit into, and the staff can have a big impact on the support and delivery of programmes.
  • Create space for a two-way exchange – Introduce yourself and the classes to prisoners a week before beginning, and have conversations around what they want to do and gain from the classes.
  • Be okay with the unexpected Classes may not run on time, the number of participants may change, the engagement of the prisoners can vary, and every week can be different, so be ready to adapt.
  • Seek advice from others Hearing about firsthand experiences is especially helpful if you haven’t taught in prison before, and there are many people who can offer advice and ongoing support, such as Arts Access Aotearoa’s Arts in Corrections Advisor.
  • Be yourself In prisons, we work with people from diverse backgrounds and many participants have never danced before. For me, it’s important to just be myself and approach the classes with the intention of just wanting to share my love of dance.

Q. What was a highlight of your prison dance classes in 2021?

A. At one point, I was visiting three different prisons every week for eight weeks, and each dance project was quite different. I really enjoy teaching in prisons and find it meaningful, so there were many highlights!

Performers in the Arohata Women's Prison Matariki concert 2021 The main one was working at Arohata Women’s Prison, where we worked towards a performance to celebrate Matariki. There were two performances over two nights in the prison gymnasium where public were invited to attend. We worked with women from the Drug Treatment Unit and it was voluntary for them to participate, so we ended up with a small but committed group. Together, we worked on two dances, and the wāhine decorated their own costumes. It was really special sharing a space with them backstage – seeing their nerves, having very random conversations, helping each other with our hair, nails and makeup, and then celebrating our successful performance together.

Q. What’s on the horizon for 2022?

A. In 2022, the RNZB Dance Education team will continue to deliver prison programmes at Arohata Women’s Prison, Rimutaka Prison, Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility and also Rolleston Prison. In 2021, we were going to offer the wāhine at ARWCF the opportunity to gain NCEA credits through the dance classes. This was put on hold because of the Covid-19 lockdown in Auckland, so we’re eager to be able to offer the NCEA credits in 2022. We’re also planning to expand the programme to include Otago Corrections Facility. This is where I first taught dance in prison when I was the 2020 Caroline Plummer Fellow in Community Dance, so it will be exciting to return to Otago and continue this relationship through the RNZB in 2022.

RNZB’s Prison Project is funded by The Kelliher Charitable Trust and Wellington Community Trust.

Teaching dance in prisons


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