Her truest colorsDec 03, 2018 10:40AM ● By J. Chambless
For the last year, Josee Spence has given Zumba instruction to incarcerated women at the Baylor Women's Correctional Institution.
By Richard L. Gaw
I see your true colors
why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful (they're beautiful)
Like a rainbow
“True Colors,” originally performed by Cyndi Lauper
It is an early Sunday afternoon in the corner room on the second floor of the Hockessin Athletic Club, and Zumba instructor Josee Spence is leading a group of 25 students. Her long blonde hair is whipping back and forth in perfect beat to the music, and the pulsating vibe in the room is about three degrees of enthusiasm away from catching fire.
Without apology and without warning, the infectious energy of the class leader has found its way into everybody's bloodstream, into every pore, and at about the halfway point in the class, a veil of protection and comfort and hiding has been lifted. Every person in the room sees themselves in the mirrors that surround them, and they willingly seem to surrender to a place where they do not normally reside.
Normalcy, decorum and the general laws of behavior have all been abandoned, because all kinds of mushy and sweaty and gorgeous chaos has broken loose, and it's because Josee Spence has led them to the point of what it means to truly be alive.
For the past several years, Spence, who also teaches French and Spanish at the Independence School, has been one of the most recognizable faces at the HAC, and it's largely because she's everywhere. Her Zumba classes are wildly popular – both in studio and in the club's pool – and she also teaches swimming lessons to children.
Yet Spence's enthusiasm toward encouraging others to engage in fitness does not end when she leaves the HAC. For the past year, she has traveled twice a month to the Baylor Women's Correctional Institution in New Castle to lead a few dozen incarcerated women through Zumba classes at Baylor's gymnasium.
“Initially, I did it for the adventure and the idea that I thought it would be fun, but my purpose there has become so much deeper and profound for me,” Spence said. “Now, a year later, it's gotten to the point where if I am unable to be with them, that I would be letting them all down.”
Spence brought her Zumba classes to Baylor at the recommendation of her nephew, a nurse at the facility. When she first arrived at the facility before her first class, she felt it was like entering another world. She attended a security briefing, and entered the gymnasium through a series of rooms whose doors opened in front of her and slammed shut behind her. At first, Baylor security said that she could not carry a cell phone with her that contained the music she wished to play in class, but eventually, she was permitted to use it.
“It was this feeling of vulnerability that came over me,” Spence said. “The very first time, as I was fumbling with my music, I looked up and saw the women come into the room, in rows. They were all silent, no one was smiling, and they were accompanied by three prison guards and two state troopers.”
Then the music began, and suddenly, the entire tone of the room changed from sullen to joyous.
“I went from 'What have I gotten myself into?' to letting loose, and watched these women go from a straight line with straight faces to just letting go.”
The 50-minute classes Spence teaches at Baylor draw an eclectic group: some are actively engaged in the movement and rhythm of Zumba, while others sit in the rear of the gymnasium and listen and sway to the music.
“Many of them are there simply because they are starving for a connection to something,” Spence said. “They go because for many of them, it's the only time they spend outside of their cells, or their trips to the cafeteria. So many people having given up caring for them and listening to them. So I come and I listen, and for some, I think that's what this class is all about.”
Spence's Zumba classes at Baylor have become so popular that when her students were informed that class would be postponed for a week in order to make repairs to the gymnasium, they appealed to move the class to the chapel. This enthusiasm extends to Baylor's ever-expanding curriculum of opportunity, that provides educational and instructional services to its population in concert with the treatment programming offered to aide in the re-entry and transitional process.
Baylor's academic offerings include adult basic education; classes that work toward a high school diploma; and special education services. Vocational programs provide classes in developing life skills such as interpersonal communication and financial management; as well as computer literacy and culinary classes. Drug treatment and therapy, religious services, counseling and recreational activities are also offered.
At the end of every Zumba class at Baylor, Spence chooses a particular song that she hopes will connect with her students' minds, hearts and souls. At the end of one class, she chose “True Colors,” a song made famous by recording artist Cyndi Lauper and since recorded by Justin Timberlake. As the women regained their breaths, the room was silent except for the song and its lyrics that reverberated around the gymnasium:
You with the sad eyes
Don't be discouraged, oh I realize
It's hard to take courage
In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
The darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small
Spence's daughter Patreece was in attendance that afternoon.
“After class, Patreece came up to me and said, 'Mom, they were no longer looking at you,'” Spence said. “She told me that she noticed that some were crying, and off into their own private thoughts. Patrice told me that I had no idea what effect this class was having on them, individually, but I do.”
Whether it is leading a class at the HAC, teaching in the club's pool, communicating with her students at the Independence School, or at Zumba classes at the Baylor Women's Correctional Institution, there is little complexity in understanding what defines Josee Spence. Defined, it's a long and unbroken line of compassion that began when she was a child growing up in Montreal, and continues to this day. Exemplified, it happens when she enters the gymnasium at Baylor twice a month and smiles at every woman who comes to class.
“Some of these women are there as they await a trial, and some have been there for 15 years and may never get out, but the truth is that I have no clue as to who did what and what for,” she said. “And really? I don't want to know, because for the one hour I'm there, I'm there not to judge, but to be on the same page with these women.
“I'm not a teacher there. I am one who happens to provide these women with music and the opportunity to dance. With whatever I do and wherever I may be, I am in this world to make it just a little pleasant, for everyone I am privileged to come across.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].