There were no chandeliers or ambient lighting for the roughly 16 men and their escorts last year. That did not stop Robert Miller, serving a six-month sentence in 2012, from enjoying an evening of music and dancing inside the Richmond City Jail with his 13-year-old daughter, Denashya Miller, now a student at John Marshall High School. The Millers were the participants of A Dance of Their Own and Robert Miller’s motivation for participating in the dance was simple: “I didn’t want (Denashya) to see me behind glass,” he says.
On March 16, the Richmond City Jail will host the second annual A Dance of Their Own, a unique event that will attempt to bridge, at least for a few hours, the physical and emotional divide that exists between incarcerated fathers and their daughters. A Dance of Their Own will precede a similar dance the following day on March 17 for non-incarcerated dads–Date With Dad Dinner and Dance, which will be held at the Downtown Richmond Marriott and is open to the public. Both dances are spearheaded by Chesterfield resident Angela Patton, 41, whose commitment to helping others has spanned a lifetime.
As a teenager, Patton formed her own girl-oriented club when she was too old to participate in the Girl Scouts–early organizational skills which proved useful as an adult. In 2004, Patton, a former nurse, founded Camp Diva, a five-week summer retreat for adolescent girls, ages 11 through 17 years old. Currently located on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, Camp Diva educates the girls about positive body image, career development and “sisterhood building.” Campers are taken on field trips designed to expose them to black history, such as the Richmond Slave Trail or Akwaaba D.C., a black-themed inn located in Washington, D.C.
“This is the time that . . . for adolescents to really make decisions that affects their lives,” Patton says. Camp Diva is not for everyone, however, and Patton has high expectations. The girls must conduct themselves in a respectful manner. Cellphones are not allowed. “Some girls are not ready and some families are not ready to support them,” Patton says.
Camp Diva is a two-way conversation. Each summer, Patton seeks input from the girls regarding improvements or changes to the program. One girl suggested holding a dance to raise scholarship money for campers and in 2008, the first Date with Dad Dinner and Dance was held. There’s no official dress code for participants; dads and daughters arrive in suits and dresses in addition to sports jerseys and sneakers. The dance is an opportunity for girls and their fathers to connect, Patton says. Even local celebrity Chad Coleman of The Wire and politicians such as Virginia delegate Joe Morrissey and Richmond City Councilman Chris Hilbert have made an appearance, she says.
Through the years the dance has expanded. When one Camp Diva participant mentioned that her father was unable to attend Date with Dad because of his incarceration, the campers suggested holding a dance inside the city jail. A Dance of Their Own was born. “Going into the jail, we thought it was for the girls. But slowly, we realized it was for (the men), too,” Patton says. “The fathers unveiled their masks and cried. Being a man, they’re not in position to express themselves. They cried. They apologized.”
A Dance of Their Own and Date With Dad Dinner and Dance have received national attention. Last year, A Dance of Their Own was acknowledged by the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show. To raise money for a documentary featuring A Dance of Their Own, Patton initiated a fundraising drive in February 2013 through Kickstarter.com, a website that solicits start-up capital through crowdsourcing. Both dances have partnered with the Richmond City Health District’s Richmond Family & Fatherhood Initiative, a program which aims to combat the high level of unmarried births by increasing the involvement of men in the lives of their children.
A father’s absence is a public health issue, a public safety issue, and a human services issue, says Brian Gullins, coordinator of the Richmond City Health District. And the challenges faced by those living in fatherless households are numerous. In terms of public health, 64 percent of births in Richmond are to single mothers, Gullins says. Households without a father present in the home are typically lower-income and these mothers and babies have higher rates of pregnancies not reaching full term, low birth weights and increased infant mortality. From a public safety standpoint, men from father-absent homes have higher rates of recidivism.
“There is a term that describes the void caused by the absence of a male presence in the home: a ‘father wound’,” Gullins says. “The profound emotional deficit caused by an absent or abusive dad. That doesn’t mean that single moms aren’t doing an incredible job,” Gullins continues. “Of course, we want to acknowledge that. But still the research is clear that it puts a disproportionate amount of stress on mothers.”
On the day of A Dance of Their Own inside the city jail, the fathers received haircuts and prison garb was replaced by suits. Guards, too, arrived without their uniforms and food was provided by a caterer. When the girls entered the room, they were escorted by their fathers, arm in arm, to tables where a tiara and wand awaited. Both father and daughter received a journal and were allowed to make a DVD as a lasting keepsake of their bond.
“There’s been a dramatic response in the men … We saw that they were purposefully more affirming of their daughters. We see an improvement in inmate behavior in response to being with their daughters. There seemed to be an improved since of purpose,” Gullins says.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Richmond City Sheriff C.T. Woody concurs. “The men take away that they can be truthful. The men behave themselves much better … I hope that as long as I’m sheriff, we’ll continue to have it. No matter what these people have done, they’re still human.”
Free from the confines of the city jail, Miller earns a living through the repair of televisions, computers and other electronics. Instead of lavish material goods, he spends quality time with Denaysha, he says. Educational trips to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site and the Richmond Slave Trail, and physical activities such ice skating and handball games are testament to Miller’s commitment.
According to Gullins, there are several benefits associated with an engaged father. “Children with engaged fathers often increase in school attendance, grades often increase. They are less likely to experience teen pregnancy … and get involved in gangs and drugs,” Gullins says. “The Date with Dads helps to facilitate that healthy connection between fathers and daughters.”
“It’s worth it, just to hear her say, ‘Dad,’” Miller says. “Everything happens for a reason. Even though it was six months, it furthered our bonding. Like Ms. Patton said, ‘even though you’re locked in, you can still be part of your daughter’s life.’”
For more information about Camp Diva: www.campdiva.org, email@example.com, (804) 420-2267
To make a donation to Angela Patton’s Kickstarter campaign: http://t.co/Ld62BNUBbW
Date With Dad Dinner and Dance: Downtown Richmond Marriott, 500 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA March 17, 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Tickets: $50, must be ordered online at http://campdiva.org/DateWithDad_Weekend.htm. No tickets can be purchased at door.
Richmond Family & Fatherhood Initiative, richmondfatherhood.org/