Flash back 45 years to a stretch class in the Dancing Theater, the studio space above Handmade & More in New Paltz that former owner Ann Rodman used to make available to the Arts Community’s dance and fitness instructors, under the auspices of Brenda Bufalino, before the second floor became a clothing boutique. It was worth sacrificing the luxury of sleeping in on a Sunday morning to practice those yoga, ballet and Feldenkrais postures for 90 minutes in exchange for the reward of feeling a week’s worth of stress drain away before brunchtime.
It was in that time and place that I first encountered dancer, teacher and choreographer Susan Slotnick, later to become my longtime colleague as a columnist. Susan was always a vivid presence in her colorful leotards swathed in airy silk scarves, fingers snapping out a brisk rhythm during the warmup exercises, sultry and confident in her movements, quick to laugh or share a personal story. She taught her motley crew of students how to let go of muscle tension and stored trauma.
That storytelling impulse gets a highly engaging workout in her new self-published book, Flight: The Dance of Freedom.
As her career as a dance educator progressed, with the founding of the first iteration of the Figures in Flight school for children, so did Susan’s interest in the teachings of the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff – particularly the practice of self-observation and attentiveness in the moment. She found in herself a gift for helping bored or distractible young people cultivate focus, and brought it to “attention through dance” classes, first in the Ellenville school district and then in teaching residencies throughout New York State.
Susan’s five years as an instructor at the Division for Youth juvenile detention facility in the Town of Lloyd ended abruptly when she insisted that a staff member change a broken stage light on the day of a long-planned dance concert – a violation of union regulations that got her volunteer access revoked. But among the incarcerated young men she had found her true calling, and a few years later she began teaching dance to adult inmates at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County. “I was the first person to teach Alvin Ailey-style to boys and men in the Western Hemisphere, within a prison context,” she says.
The gig extended over 20 years. Many of the imprisoned men who joined her program have credited Susan with transforming their lives, and some of her students went on to found their own troupe, Figures in Flight Released, after returning to civilian life.
What was the personal dynamic that enabled this middle-class Jewish woman from Scarsdale to bond with men of color from disadvantaged backgrounds who had been convicted of heinous felonies? Part of it was a lifelong commitment to social justice, and part a shared familiarity with the sense of feeling isolated, underestimated and misjudged. The self-assurance that the adult Susan displayed in public concealed the scars of a childhood in a highly dysfunctional family and a history of rebellion that included being “boy-crazy” and cutting classes to hang out on the wrong side of town.
The first half of Flight documents those difficult formative years. In an excerpt from a diary that she kept at age twelve, Susan writes, “My mother hates me. I have no friends. I am flunking all my subjects. So why do I believe in myself so much?” The determination that kept her going when her self-esteem was at its lowest ebb was a resource that she wanted to share with the wounded people she met in prison. Their stories, individually and as a group of dancers in training, are featured in the second half of the book.
Having enjoyed Susan’s short essays in this publication for many years, it’s a pleasure for me to be able to report that she makes the challenging leap to long-form storytelling with skill and aplomb. Flight follows a roughly chronological time line, building up the reader’s understanding of how her rocky upbringing shaped her appreciation for the freeing power of body movement. There are entertaining side excursions where appropriate, but the narrative flow stays on course.
Susan also pays tribute to the beneficent, grounding influences in her life, including her husband Sam, their three daughters. and many supportive friends. But it’s her students – both the sheltered, relatively privileged children of New Paltz families who stayed in her Figures in Flight companies from kindergarten until they flew off to college and the discarded men who found new ways to define themselves in her prison classes – who command our attention in this book. The dramatic finale is a collaborative performance merging the two companies, not without community controversy, in a production of a full-length dance that Susan choreographed titled Welcome to the World.
Publishing this book, identifying the facility in which she worked, and using the real names of some of her students at Woodbourne breaks some strict confidentiality policies that rule out her working at a state prison ever again. Funding for the programs organized by Rehabilitation through the Arts had already been drastically cut after the escape of two convicts sparked riots at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in 2015.
Though still fit at age 75, Susan can physically no longer demonstrate all the dance moves that her students need to learn. So that phase of her life is done.
The reverberations linger. Her groundbreaking work has been captured in award-winning radio and film documentaries. She hears now and again from a former inmate who is pursuing a doctorate, or from someone who has read about her successes and wants to know how to replicate them in some town with a nearby correctional facility. “I have tossed seeds into a wild, untended garden,” she writes. “I can only hope for many flowers, trust in the elements, and have the humility to accept the outcome.”
Flight: The Dance of Freedom is available in paperback for $19.95 from Amazon Publishing at www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/1079554904. It’s a good read, inspiring hope.