At 68 Susan Slotnick is not interested in retiring. She has dancers to train. It is what she has been doing for decades with children, teens and adults in New Paltz, New York. But for the past seven years she has reached her favourite students only after an hour’s drive through the mountains and a walk through the locked gates and doors guarding the Woodbourne Correctional Facility.
The prisoners who spend every Sunday afternoon with her are murderers, drug dealers and sex offenders. After six rigorous hours of dancing and exercises, they sit in a circle and talk. In a CBC Radio documentary, Slotnick said of them:
The majority of my guys were teenagers when they committed their crime. I was doing a philosophy class in the prison as I very often do, and I decided to use the quote from Deuteronomy: ‘I set before you life and death. Choose life.’
And for me, what it was about, is nobody is all evil, nobody is all good. At the end of it, a prisoner named Tyrone Taylor, a great guy, came up to me and he said, ‘You know, I really liked your philosophy class a lot, but there was one problem relating it to my life.’
I said, ‘What was that?’ And he said, “We never knew the other choice existed.’
That last sentence shakes me to the core. Thanks to the only prison dance class for men in all of North America, men who have no vision for themselves outside of a life on society’s sidelines are finding the doors of their minds and hearts opened. Anne Pyburn Craig wrote a wonderful article about Slotnick’s work for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine. In it Slotnick told her:
These guys are incredibly hungry for an archetypal mother-energy gentleness, acceptance, kindness.
Everyone needs that, but these men are missing it in their lives. They get it from Slotnick, along with the discipline, body awareness and a newfound means of expressing their inner lives through the medium of dance. They are changed by the experience, and so is Slotnick. You can watch a performance by a dance company called Figures in Flight Released, in the video below. All of the dancers are former prisoners. They and their dance teacher give me hope.
NB This work would not happen without the support of Rehabilitation through the Arts, an extraordinary program that started in Sing Sing in 1996. But that is another story for another time.