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Central Standard

Life Lessons SuEllen Fried Has Learned From Prison Inmates, Psychiatric Patients And School Bullies

Paul Andrews
SuEllen Fried works with inmates at Kansas correctional facilities.

In the 1950s, SuEllen Fried got a call asking if she'd like to teach the cha-cha to psychiatric patients at the Osawatomie State Hospital.

She'd danced in St. Louis's Muny Opera as a teen and she'd made plans to move to New York to pursue a career in dance on Broadway. But at the last minute, she fell in love, moved to Kansas City, got married and started a family instead.

Although she's now the author of three books, the co-founder of a Kansas nonprofit for rehabilitating prison inmates, and a regular guest speaker for school groups and TEDx audiences, back then, she was primarily a home-maker. That phone call changed everything. 

"I had led the most sheltered life anybody could have ever led," Fried admits. "My entire family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — all lived within five blocks of each other in University City, Missouri. I never went away to school. I never lived one night on my own, and now I'm going to a psychiatric hospital. So I drove there with fear and terror in my heart, because I did not know the cha cha."

She ended up teaching ballet instead.

Fried's class included forty psychiatric patients in hospital-issue gowns. They had not had regular exercise or nutritious diets, in some cases, for decades. Not having anticipated the situation, Fried did the only thing she knew how to do: She taught ballet to those women the same way she would have taught anyone else.

"I was prespiring so hard," she recalls. "I felt like such a failure."

"I went from my father's roof to my husband's roof and now I'm going to a psychiatric hospital. So I drove there with fear and terror in my heart, because I did not know the cha cha."

Prepared to apologize to the volunteer coordinator who'd invited her, she was told the class was "fabulous" because she had treated her students not like patients but like dancers.

"The idea of using dance to work with psychiatric patients was absolutely fascinating to me," Fried says.

That epiphany set Fried on a new path as a pioneer in the fledgling field of dance therapy. The hospital paired her with a psychiatrist and together, Fried says, they "created dance therapy." 

No one was doing this type of work at that time in Kansas, she says. Isolated projects were beginning to take off in New York and California, but here Fried learned as she went, beginning with a talent show for patients at the Osawotamie State Hospital.

Leading up to that production, she ran into difficulty with one young man. 

"He couldn't carry a tune and he had two left feet and I put him in the back row but he kept planting himself in the front row," she remembers.

She gave him a costume that was too big.

"I wanted to disguise him as much as possible to hide all of his flaws," she says.

He ended up surprising her with a beautiful performance that humbled her for the remainder of her career, and has served as a reminder that there is something beautiful and creative in everyone, and her job is to help them find it.

Fried's career bounced her from dance therapy to child-abuse prevention to anti-bullying advocacy in schools to prison reform. At each turn, she was initiating conversations before the culture around her was having them.

She says she enters each space as a student, treating the people she's there to serve as her teachers. Though she's now the author of three books on bullying, when she asks kids to tell her about cyber-bullying, she says, "I always feel like I'm at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association." 

Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

It was her work in child abuse prevention that led her to the Lifers' Club (inmates serving life sentences) at one area prison.  

She was invited to the Lifers' Club by an inmate who had surveyed everyone on his cellblock to investigate his personal belief that here was a correlation between being abused as a child and ending up incarcerated. 

Fried asked the club members to judge a contest. She had asked people in the community to suggest ten ways to prevent family violence, and she wanted the "lifers" to discuss the ideas and come up with a winner.

"I still go once a week," she says, "not to help them. I go to be inspired by how they learn to deal with frustration and injustice and learn how to heal themselves and each other."

Her project of turning to other people to inform her own expertise continues as she conducts research for a book to be titled Siblings: Bullying, Betrayal and Bonding. Although the byline will be Fried's, she's quick to acknowledge her unwitting collaborators.

"Passengers on my airplane trips have been my greatest source of data," Fried says with a smile. "I turn to them and I say, 'I'm so sorry, but on this trip, you're not going to get to read a book or take a nap. I'm writing a book and I need your help.'"

Portrait sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City paired with photographs byPaul Andrews. You can listen to Gina Kaufmann's entire interview with SuEllen Friedhere.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can contact her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.