Regular readers of the New Paltz Times are familiar with the column written by Susan Slotnick that appears within its pages, in which her passion for social justice in all its varied forms is interwoven into stories of everyday life that bring her message home in an intimate way that someone standing on a soapbox cannot. Readers of that column know that Slotnick is a dance teacher and a choreographer, and that part of that aspect of her life is the volunteer work that she has done for 17 years now, going into prisons and offering the incarcerated an avenue to the feeling of freedom through teaching them how to dance.
She does this work every Sunday without fail. “I’m a lifer,” she says. “I’ve never made a cent from it, but I once tallied up the hours I worked in prison and it came to two-and-a-half years of full-time, 40-hours-a-week work. I’m very dedicated to them.”
When she’s not teaching dance in prison, Slotnick teaches dance to young people “on the outside.” Her first group, Figures in Flight 1, was formed about 25 years ago, she says, “from kids I work with from the time they’re 5 years old till they go to college.” Figures in Flight 2 and then 3 came next. The current group is Figures in Flight 4, a youth company that performs on such a professional level, says Slotnick, that “they’ve been invited for six unprecedented years in a row” to perform at the prestigious Battery Dance Festival in New York City. The company also performs at the Mohonk Mountain House during Christmas week and at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs.
Figures in Flight 4 will perform on Saturday, June 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the McKenna Theatre on the campus of SUNY-New Paltz. Sharing the bill with them will be a group of male dancers once trained in prison by Slotnick, known as Figures in Flight 5 when they were incarcerated and now appropriately renamed Figures in Flight Released. The men gave themselves that name, says Slotnick, who no longer directs the group. “I don’t want to work with them,” she says. “When they got out and formed their own company, I said, ‘You can have my choreography, you can ask me advice, but you’re free men now – you’re doing your own thing.’”
Figures in Flight Released is now directed by one of its own, Andre Noel, a man whom Slotnick worked with and trained as a dancer for seven years at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility. “He’s a fantastic dancer,” she says, “and he makes all the decisions now.”
The men have performed at some pretty impressive venues, including the National Museum of Dance, Vassar College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Fordham University and Columbia University. In May they performed in New York City for an auditorium full of homeless and at-risk children. A video of this performance can be viewed on their Facebook page under “Figures in Flight Released,” along with other videos that reveal the talent of these dancers and the results of redirecting someone’s energies toward the positive.
One video on the site offers a poignant testimonial by one of the dancers, Jecoina Vinson, in which he describes how learning to dance in prison with Slotnick “corrected” his idea of what manhood is. “Being in prison, your manhood is constantly challenged, and the way you perceive things is usually warped,” he says on the video. “We look at things from an egotistical perspective. Being in dance helped me challenge my emotions in a way that could express who I truly am – without the mask, without the façade.”
The men need parole permission to perform, so the exact number of men who will dance at Saturday’s performance is uncertain until then, says Slotnick. “If we’re lucky, it’ll be five. There are many more [men] who are out, and wish they were dancing, but they weren’t paroled to a place where they can be involved.” Slotnick says that all of the men with whom she worked in the prison program “are functioning beautifully. Nobody has gone back.”
The men will dance to Sam Cooke’s powerful “A Change is Gonna Come,” and probably Walter Hawkins’ “Be Grateful,” says Slotnick, a song to which they danced while in prison, she adds, “with a wonderful message: It made them feel grateful, even though they were in there.”
The youth group, Figures in Flight 4, will perform a varied program in different styles, including a new piece choreographed to the soundtrack from Downton Abbey. Guest artists will be the Ukrainian Dancers of Kerhonkson. The upbeat group provides a good balance to the evening’s performance, says Slotnick, “because the themes of my work with Figures in Flight companies tend to be very serious.”
Slotnick was first inspired to teach dance to the imprisoned after a difficult childhood in which she discovered the release of dancing for herself, she says. “At some point in my life I thought, ‘Where do people feel bad and need to feel free?’ Because dancing always made me feel free.” She says that she always worked better with male students, and so began volunteering at a youth correctional facility in Highland, where she taught the boys dance for five years, every Sunday, until the program was dropped. When she offered her program to the men’s prison, the administrators didn’t want to let her in at first, Slotnick says, because they didn’t think that it would work. “But it worked great, and those are the people that are performing Saturday.”
Figures in Flight 4 and Figures in Flight Released, Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m., $10, McKenna Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; https://www.newpaltz.edu.