In the gym at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, dance teacher Emmy Fansler (left) and director Alison Herron of Arts With A Purpose prepare for detainees who have been learning hip-hop dance technique. At the Denney Talent Showcase, young people will demonstrate what they have learned, including reciting poetry written by fellow detainees. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

In the gym at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, dance teacher Emmy Fansler (left) and director Alison Herron of Arts With A Purpose prepare for detainees who have been learning hip-hop dance technique. At the Denney Talent Showcase, young people will demonstrate what they have learned, including reciting poetry written by fellow detainees. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Youthful offenders express themselves through dance, poetry

Kids at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center performed at the fifth Denney Talent Showcase.

She’s a professional dance teacher whose moves match the music. He’s a teen with a ponytail, a radiant smile and a past that landed him in detention.

Together, in the gym at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, they stepped in unison. He spun her around. And with simultaneous knee slides toward the audience, they won rousing applause.

To hip-hop rhythms Tuesday, kids in detention performed at the fifth Denney Talent Showcase. The show, attended by court and detention staff along with other guests, included teens reading poems written by fellow students in Denney’s language arts classes.

One boy read this:

“I hope I get out soon

So I don’t have to see my mama cry

I hope I can change my ways

To live a better life

I hope for the best, but

Expect the worst”

Dance has lifted spirits at a time when these kids are living with consequences. Some, accused of violent acts, have been held for months.

“There’s joy there, especially in a place where they’re constantly reminded of the things they’ve done,” said Emmy Fansler, a dance instructor with Arts With A Purpose. For more than a year, the performing arts program has offered dance to kids in Denney, Snohomish County’s juvenile detention facility in Everett.

Fansler, 32, was recruited for Arts With A Purpose by Alison Herron, the organization’s program supervisor. Fansler, of Shoreline, started at Denney in November and is there four days a week. She teaches a group class, but also semi-private sessions because some detainees can’t be together.

“It breaks my heart — but I love working with these kids,” said Fansler, who teaches at Issaquah Dance Theatre, for Seattle Parks and Recreation, and with her own adult dance company. Each summer, she goes to Arizona, where she dances and stages a production with homeless kids.

When she started at Denney, Fansler said teens acted tough and anxious, “even doing a basic stretch.”

“Doing joyful things, they have trust in each other. They feel safe with me now. They play — and that is huge,” she said.

Herron, 62, is in the process of establishing Arts With A Purpose as a nonprofit. The group, which has alliances with The Dance School in Everett and the YMCA, also works with kids on probation. Herron, too, has a dance background and is co-owner of Applause Studio in Mill Creek. She first came to Denney as a youth career adviser with AmeriCorps and Workforce Snohomish.

Through that work, she met Mike Irons, probation services manager with Snohomish County Juvenile Court. “I have such respect for everybody here working to help these kids,” Herron said.

Irons, who was in Tuesday’s audience, said the dance program gives kids a chance to join in “pro-social activities,” and for the community to recognize their promise.

“Our kids are going to get out,” Irons said. Through positive connections, they’re less likely to reoffend, he said. Irons noted that with community-based Youth Enrichment Services, the county aims to reduce the number of kids in secure detention while holding them accountable.

David Oster, Snohomish County Juvenile Court’s detention manager, said there were 22 detainees at Denney on Tuesday. Oster said laws have changed and the focus on juvenile justice, here and statewide, is to reduce the use of detention. “We’re understanding that contact with the system can lead to more contact,” he said.

Many volunteers help at Denney. They include people from religious ministries, 12-step groups and Toastmasters. “With these positive experiences, things connect,” Oster said. “It may not click now, but maybe a year from now.”

Along with poetry and dance, Tuesday’s show brought the Snohomish County Music Project’s Ben Kendall to Denney. He led the opening act, with drumming and other percussion performed by 10 teens pounding out a beat.

“Yeah, it’s fun,” said one 16-year-old boy, who read poetry and danced in the show. “It helps me get a lot of energy out,” said the 17-year-old whose talents were highlighted in the hip-hop duet with Fansler, the dance teacher.

Irons said risk assessments are done for all Denney detainees. “Most of them have never been involved in a positive activity in their whole lives,” he said. “This keeps them safer and keeps the community safer.”

Fansler has seen that kids in detention are much more than what landed them there.

“These kids are truly amazing, incredibly gifted human beings,” she said. “They are open to learning. That’s important for people to know.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

How to help

Donations to Arts With A Purpose may be sent to: Arts With A Purpose, c/o The Dance School, P.O. Box 1833, Everett, WA, 98206.

Information: Email Alison Herron, Arts With A Purpose program supervisor:


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