“I’m nervous. I hope he recognizes me,” mumbles Alexis Atkins, 9, who has her blond hair curled into long ringlets and keeps zipping and unzipping her hot-pink purse.
Down the hall, through several gates and inside a communal cell with thick blue bars, 12 inmates change from their frayed one-piece jumpsuits into formal attire. They pass belts and shirts of various sizes back and forth between the tight rows of steel bunk beds.
“Anyone know how to do up this here tie?” asks a jittery looking Andre Morman, 42, who has been in and out of jail on drug charges numerous times.
Then the inmates line up, too. They walk down a long hallway and wait in silence to get a glimpse of the girls: their daughters.
For a few hours on this Saturday afternoon, the incarcerated fathers will be allowed to take part in an American tradition, the father-daughter dance. “A Dance of Their Own,” thought to be the only event of its kind in the country, will be in the jail’s small, windowless multipurpose room.
The event in Richmond is just one example of the alternative father-daughter dances springing up around the country amid growing concerns that traditional father-daughter dances are exclusionary. Their detractors say they are outdated, discriminatory and sexist and that they no longer reflect what American families look like. For starters, according to 2011 census data, more than half of all children in this country are raised by unmarried mothers.
“The whole idea feels very 1950s,” said Peggy Drexel, author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers and the Changing American Family.” “I mean, do you invite your sperm-donor dad? Today’s America has the daughters of donors, lesbians, two gay dads. . . .”
In October, school officials in Cranston, R.I., banned the dances — along with mother-son baseball games — after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint citing discrimination against single mothers, as well as gender stereotyping. “It’s ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ stuff — it shouldn’t be happening in this century,” said Steven Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU. “Not every girl wants to grow up to be Cinderella; some might actually more enjoy playing baseball. But these types of stereotyped events promote an opposite impression.”
One indication that times are changing: The Girl Scouts of America have given some of the events new names, such as “SAM” — significant adult male — dances or “Someone Special and Me” dances. There are also new events replacing the dances, such as the “Daddy-Daughter Boot Camp” for Girl Scouts on Fort Belvoir.
“What’s really new here is that people whose family forms were shoved under the rug, including those in jail, are increasingly saying we have a right to the same respect that everyone gets,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of “The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America’s Changing Families.”
‘Dance can have a ripple effect’
The dance at the Richmond jail is less improbable than it sounds: Historically, the father-daughter dances have been used to help American families reunite. They became widespread in the U.S. after WWII as a way to reintegrate men into family life. It’s too early to know whether this dance will have a lasting impact, but Richmond City Sheriff C.T. Woody says it’s a start.
“People may think it’s crazy to have this in a jail,” says Woody, 67, a veteran homicide detective. “But it builds respect. You wouldn’t believe what it does for these men’s confidence to dress them up. So this dance can have a ripple effect.”
The idea was born when a girl said she felt left out because her father was locked up, said Angela Patton, head of Camp Diva, a Richmond nonprofit that works to empower African American girls.
“We thought, ‘These girls need their fathers, too,’ ” said Patton, who hopes to replicate the dance in the Washington area. “But we also thought, ‘Let’s not just throw the girls and the dads together in the jail. Let’s prepare everyone. This is not just some dance that’s about punch and cookies.’ ”
It’s the day before the dance, and a group of inmates in the G-2 cell block — many of whom are attending — sit on plastic chairs for a fatherhood class. The class is part of a program for inmates who want to change negative social behaviors and recover from substance abuse. As they gather, guards with guns and walkie-talkies circulate through the halls.
“Waking up in this bleak place is depressing as hell. But it’s only temporary. Remind yourself, you are just passing through,” one poster reads. Also on the walls are the Serenity Prayer, Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I have a dream” speech and warnings against excessive cursing and use of “the N-word.”
Only some of the inmates will be allowed to attend the dance. It’s open only to nonviolent offenders; interested fathers are interviewed by a jail deputy and have their criminal histories reviewed. They must also get permission from the child’s mother.
When the class begins, the men fall silent.
“How many of you are fathers?” asks Brian Gullins, a coordinator with the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative.
Nearly every hand goes up in the room.
“What are your top three emotions about your own father?,” he asks.
A man stands up and says his name is Tony.
“Hey Tony,” the men say in thunderous unison.
“My emotion for my father is anger. He committed infidelity and left us behind. That’s when me and my brother got into the streets, took up drugs. My brother got killed. I am here. Thanks for letting me share.”
“Thanks for your share, Tony” they boom again in one voice.
Some of the other men stand up to speak.
“My dad was chaotic.”
“My dad was an alcoholic.”
“My dad beat on my mother.”
And after a few more, Gullins poses another question:
“If we asked your child to talk about you, what would that say?,” Gullins asks. Some of the men stare at the ground, others shake their heads and sigh.
“If it’s painful, then own it, brothers,” Gullins tells them.
Joey Atkins is a husky man with blond hair and tatted up arms who has been in and out of jail for drug dealing and on weapons-related violations.
He’s been trying to repair his life, he says, for his daughter Alexis. He’s even taking a Virginia Commonwealth University English class that meets inside the jail and studying poetry.
So he listens intensely when he hears a prose-poem delivered to the class by Richmond activist and hip-hop artist Joe’i Chancellor. Her father went to jail when she was nine. He didn’t come home until she was 21, she tells them.
“Father Father Father where have you been?/ Jail, dead, on drugs, or the street life is that where you went? / Did your choices lead you to leave me?”
Her hoarse voice rises, like a preaching poet’s. Then she screams and weeps some of the final lines:
“I know after hearing my poem you feel messed up and you should / But I understand now you were misunderstood/ You too was misled you was raised by the hood / Was a fatherless child because your father was no good.”
Watching as some of the inmates choke back tears, Sheriff Woody rushes to the front of the room.
“Let it go through you, brothers,” Woody says. “Let yourself just feel it.”
‘I’m gonna see Daddy’
It’s the morning of the dance so Jhaniyika’s mother is getting her ready at home, as her five siblings — four boys and one sister — watch enviously.
Her mother helps her put on her white tights and silver Mary Janes along with a necklace of plastic dress-up pearls.
“I’m gonna see Daddy. I’m gonna hug Daddy,” she says, twirling around the living room.
Her sister Avianiea, just a year older, is quiet.
She stares at SpongeBob on TV. She starts to cry.
“They said we could only bring one daughter,” says her mother Jennifer Morman, who chose Jhaniyika because she cries the most for her father whenever they visit.
“She really hates talking to him through that glass,” says Jennifer, who wears her husband’s wedding ring around her neck since inmates are not allowed to wear jewelry.
Does she think the dance will help?
“I think it will stay with him,” Jennifer says.
He’s been behind bars for the last nine months, this time for failing to pay child support for a 15-year-old daughter from another relationship. He gets out in 88 days. He has nine children total and says he just doesn’t have the money.
Back at the jail, he’s trying to find a belt that will fit. He’s lost 40 pounds since getting locked up.
“I just gotta break this cycle I’m in. I’m just tired of it,” Andre Morman says, adding that he can’t wait to see his youngest daughter. “I haven’t been able to pick her up in nine months.”
At around 1:30 p.m. the girls are taken down a long hallway to meet their fathers. But instead of waiting they all rush to one another. This time, the fathers don’t bother choking back tears. They just let themselves cry.
“Is jail over yet, Daddy?” calls out Jhaniyika, who runs into her father’s arms.
He couldn’t answer yes. So he just hugged her tightly.
A photo in a paper frame to keep
“Introducing, Joey Atkins and his daughter Alexis,” the event’s master of ceremonies booms as the pair walks a red — paper — carpet.
They have their photos taken in the multipurpose room, which has been decorated with purple paper tablecloths and balloons. The event begins with a journaling exercise where the fathers and daughters write notes to each other.
“I am having fun. It’s gonna be hard to leave,” Alexis writes.
There’s a chicken dinner and a sugary cake. Celebrity guest Chad Coleman, a Richmond native who grew up in the foster care system and later became famous for playing reformed ex-convict Cutty in “The Wire,” comes forward to praise the event.
Everyone is on their best behavior. The fathers pull out their daughters’ chairs and rise when their daughters come back to their seats after being away, manners they learned in their fathering class. Some huddle and share family and schools news. One daughter charms her dad into promising she can have a summer pass to Kings Dominion.
But then “The Wobble” comes on and that gets everyone moving and laughing — for a few minutes, the event turns into a silly, sloppy dance party. “Dad!” Alexis laughs, like any daughter embarrassed by seeing her father busting loose. And then she joins in, jumping forward, leaning to the right and waving her hands in the air.
But when it’s time to leave, even the jail guards, some crying, say they feel the ache. The inmates and their daughters all get their photographs in paper frames to keep.
Joey and his daughter Alexis hug and cry for what seems like a very long time.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he whispers into her ear. “They can’t hold me forever, Boo.”
Andre hugs Jhaniyika, tells her to be good to her mother and her siblings for him. She keeps looking back as she leaves, a tiny figure stumbling in her shiny Mary Janes.
Outside the room, she spots him through the glass and starts pounding on it, yelling over and over, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”