New Paltz youth workshop aims to enhance communication through art

Jill Ann Schwartz will be hosting an event called “Unmasking Teen Rites” on August 14 at SUNY New Paltz. This event will be a playful day of movement, drumming and clay arts/maskmaking for teens 12-17 years. The project is funded through a Thrive Grant from The Maya Gold Foundation. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Got any teenagers in your life who might benefit from a day of creative self-expression within a safe space, in the company of other young people? They might want to check out “Unmasking: Teen Rites,” a workshop being offered on Monday, August 14 at the Julien J. Studley Theatre, located in the Old Main Building on the SUNY New Paltz campus. It runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is absolutely free, thanks to a Thrive Grant from the Maya Gold Foundation. But participants should sign up promptly, because the program is filling up quickly.

Designed to help youth of any background between the ages of 12 and 17 learn to communicate in three dimensions through movement, drumming and clay arts, Unmasking seems a perfect match for the goals of the Foundation: to “develop new programs for teens in New Paltz and the surrounding area that will enhance emotional awareness, build mutual support and caring among teens and adults, strengthen inner resilience and teach mindfulness practice.” It’s the brainchild of Jill Ann Schwartz, MA, a Woodstock-based dancer, choreographer and arts therapist who works in the Adolescent Partial Program at Benedictine Hospital. “I do movement work with them, help them make friends with their bodies,” she says.


“I’ve danced since I was four years old and learned how to skip,” says Schwartz. But she also became entranced with sculpting clay from an early age; in college she majored in ceramics and minored in dance. “Clay is a very forgiving material. I loved the plasticity of it.”

After completing her undergraduate work at SUNY Brockport, Schwartz “moved to Seattle just to dance,” and began to study the work of Hungarian modern dance pioneer Rudolf Laban, who “made the connection between dance and everyday movement” and believed that “dance is for everyone…. I loved the idea of dance not being so precious, not just for the elite. Each of us is a dancer when we’re present in our bodies.”

For Schwartz, the physicality and three-dimensionality of movement not only bridges naturally into sculpture, but also into the practical use of tools. Inspired by Laban’s respect for the movement patterns that people use in their everyday work, she took a long hiatus from teaching dance to learn carpentry. For several years she was supervisor of construction for Leathers and Associates, a company that designs and builds community playgrounds. Helping young people express themselves in physical space seems to be her gift.

“I love being in the round of the world,” she says. “Kids today are not really in three dimensions. Our world has been flattened by technology.” Schwartz also believes that contemporary society doesn’t have much to offer youth in terms of positive coming-of-age rituals that help them integrate into the adult world. “Teens need their own rights of passage,” she says. “We need to honor the natural goodness in young people. They need to be acknowledged as a vital part of society. We need to entrust them with dreaming for the future, so we can turn that over to them and they can become leaders.”

That ritual approach forms the core of what Monday’s workshop is all about. The activities will begin with “gathering as a group to honor the diversity of a group who have no history together,” with the first hour consisting of movement exercises and games. Then percussionist Mark Suresh Schlanger will facilitate a drum circle. Next comes the clay exploration part of the day, which Schwartz characterizes as both “playful” and “process-oriented.” Participants can create sculptures, keep or destroy what they’ve made, experiencing the “possibility to create change” that clay easily affords.

The culminating exercise is for each person to make a clay mask that reveals some aspect of his or her personality. “It may have a voice; it may become animated through movement; they might give a name to it.” The participants will then gather in a circle for a ceremony in which they “meet” one another’s new identities as captured in their masks, to “see what has emerged.”

Noting that “Teens are often a very challenging group to get to participate,” Schwartz says that her goal in organizing the workshop is to create a “pool of permission” and give kids an opportunity to “dive in and be an expressive person.” She is hoping that participants in Unmasking will find it easier to communicate with each other following the group exercises. “It’s very courageous to be honest and to reveal your truth. That can happen only when people are listening in a respectful, honoring way.”

While the grant funding only enables this single workshop to take place, Schwartz sees it as a “pilot project…the beginning of something I really want to grow: an ongoing community of young people, providing them with positive mentors. All we can do is start with an invitation.”

To enroll in “Unmasking: Teen Rites,” call (845) 679-7889 or e-mail This free community event is being produced in collaboration with the Mid-Hudson Migrant Education Program and the graduate program in Expressive Arts, Leadership and Change at SUNY New Paltz. To find out more about Jill Ann Schwartz’s ongoing work, visit