Sitting in her living room in Hyde Park, Rosey Puloka makes her hands into fists, signifying anger. She starts pounding her fists on her legs in a steady motion, adding force and speed, then decreasing them until the movement slows and her fists release the tension and anger that had built up inside.
Puloka, 29, often uses such movements as a way to let inmates release their anger. Puloka is a dance movement therapist and counselor with Salina & Associates and, for the past nine months, she has been working at the Sheriff Women’s Justice Program at Cook County Jail.
Puloka said she is a prison abolitionist at heart, but that her dislike fuels her work. She said she has always known she’s wanted to work with “incarcerated populations.”
“Being incarcerated is my idea of hell,” Puloka said. “And so I think, OK, if I was in hell, who would I want there and what would I have to hold on to? I’m invested in it politically and socially.”
Puloka was an artist-in-residence in Taiwan at the Taipei Artist Village in 2010. As a part of the program, she volunteered with the Dance and Disabled Project, where doctors and dancers joined forces to use movement as a therapy tool for adults with developmental disabilities.
“That was when I kinda clued in that like, oh Rosey, pay attention to this,” Puloka said. “You’re happier in your one hour a week or whatever it was working with the Dance and Disabled Project than you are the other 23 hours dancing with these other individuals.”
Puloka said she wanted to include more social activism and therapy in her life.
Back in the United States, Puloka started working with adolescent girls in a rehabilitation program and then discovered dance movement therapy on the internet. “I was like, oh my god, these are my two worlds coming together,” she said.
Puloka started working at the Cook County Jail in an apprenticeship position while she was completing her master’s degree in dance movement therapy at Columbia College Chicago.
After graduating, Puloka stayed at the jail to do more in-depth work. She currently works with individuals as well as groups that focus on issues like addiction, anger and violence, and women seeking safety.
Anne-Marie Lindquist works as a mental health clinician at the Cook County Jail. Lindquist knew Puloka when she started her apprenticeship at the jail, and started working with her in March of 2016 when Puloka became a full-time employee.
“I’ve seen her take on a lot of new challenges, like having to kind of go beyond her focus in just dance movement therapy, and very gracefully so… with objectivity and her best judgement,” Lindquist said.
As a therapist, Puloka said the first stage is to “establish safety in the body, the therapeutic relationship and in the space.”
Puloka said helping her very first client, identified as “S” for confidentiality purposes, was one of her most proud accomplishments. Puloka said S had a history of trauma, torturing things, and was a drug user.
“When we started our sessions together, it was really intense,” Puloka said. “It was sort of like the damn broke and she just spilled everything.”
Puloka said S didn’t think there was anything good or worthy about herself, so S started to ask people and write down their answers about what all was great about her.
Puloka and S then took all of the sayings and made them into an art project, painting them on paper on the walls of a small office.
“We just kind of sat next to each other and looked at the paintings; I think it was in that moment that I realized, oh wow, I think I did it,” Puloka said. “I think I really made it to stage one.”
Puloka said her last session with S together was silent and peaceful, as opposed to previous sessions when she would shake uncontrollably. “She was a shaker, and so I would always monitor that. And she was completely still.”
After that final session, S was discharged.
Heather MacLaren, a dance movement therapist who went through schooling with Puloka, said Puloka values authenticity and community.
“She is really eager to welcome people in and ensure that people feel comfortable and accepted,” MacLaren said. “I think from what I’ve seen of her work, is really where her power as a therapist lies– in creating that safe, welcoming place for you to come and land as who you are.”
Puloka said there is no certain way to do dance movement therapy, and that what she does often depends on the group or individual she is working with. “There is one [group] right now, they already feel very safe with each other and so they’re able to just go straight into the hard stuff really quickly,” Puloka said.
However, some groups aren’t as comfortable with each other.
“A lot of my dance movement therapy groups are just getting people to be in relationship with each other,” Puloka said. “There’s not a lot of trust in jail and a lot of people are scared of other people.”
After the election, Puloka said everyone in her groups, as well as herself, was upset. She focused on helping people talk through how they felt.
“The skills that you use just kind of shift a tiny bit,” she said. “Instead of being this container, you’re like, ok, we’re all water at this point. I’ll make sure we don’t go into deep dark corners, but we’re all just gonna kind of flow in and out of this devastation.”
Puloka also uses her dance movement therapy background outside of jail. For over a year, she has been holding yoga sessions at her apartment in Hyde Park. “The space has turned into like ‘this is your space to just be whatever you need to be and heal however you need to heal,’” Puloka said.
Puloka said she always knew she wanted to be connected with the earth and to people. “I didn’t know what it was going to look like,” she said. “I’m pretty happy with what turned out.”
Watch a video here to learn more about Puloka’s yoga sessions.