Prisoners discover the healing power of dance

For the past seven years, Susan Slotnick has been teaching a dance class to an unlikely group: convicted murderers, drug dealers and sex offenders in the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York state. The results have been extraordinary, reports CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition.

68-year-old dance instructor teaches murderers, sex offenders in New York state

For the past seven years, prisoners at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York state have been discovering the beauty and liberating power of dance. (CBC)

Susan Slotnick is always moving. 

She is 68, and a woman with presence. For decades, she has taught dance to children and teens in her hometown of New Paltz, N.Y., bringing good posture, proper foot position, a lot of discipline and the joy of movement into their lives. 

But her star students are a little less fresh faced. They are convicted murderers, drug dealers and sex offenders. Many have spent more than half their lives behind bars.

Every Sunday afternoon for the past seven years, Slotnick has driven an hour up through the mountains to the Woodbourne Correctional Facility to see them and teach them.

Thick steel doors are buzzed open. Guards lead a dozen men - in their baggy prison sweats - into a classroom. Chairs and tables are pushed aside. A cassette tape is turned on.

And for six hours, Slotnick leads them through exercises and dances until their muscles ache and she is satisfied they have the moves down pat.

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Then they sit in a circle and talk. Slotnick calls it her “philosophy class."

Slotnick's philosophy

It's all part of preparation for a performance they're planning for 800 fellow inmates. With support from an organization called Rehabilitation through the Arts, Slotnick founded this dance program, the only one for men in a North American prison and one of the few dance programs for male prisoners in the world.

“The majority of my guys were teenagers when they committed their crime," says Slotnick. "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.'”

“They came from the ghetto,” Slotnick says. “Their parents were in gangs. They survived the underground economy, selling something illegal. They didn’t always know what was right and wrong.

"They didn’t have good schools, they didn’t have good parenting, they were victims of institutionalized racism. So I don’t see them as criminals. I see them as people who did something really wrong at one point in their lives, made a huge mistake, and that is not who they are.”

'Crazy' new direction in life

Thomas is one of Susan's dance students. He's a middle-aged guy with big biceps and an even bigger smile.  

"I actually told my wife a couple of months ago that I gotta go to dance tomorrow. She said, 'Dance? Dance? That sounds crazy, baby!' I said, 'It sounds crazy but I am not doing anything for anybody else anymore. I am doing what I enjoy, what makes me feel good as a person.

"You see, when I was living that street life, I was trying to appease other people, and to live up to the image they wanted me to be. Every day coming down here, all that negativity is flushing out of me.”

Albert, another dancer, says, "Dance shows you that no matter what you do, you have a choice. It teaches me how to interact. Either physically or verbally. When I started, I said people make bad choices. My bad choice was that I didn’t communicate. I didn’t seek out help. So now I learned from that mistake. I learned that I am not here by myself.”

The power of dance

Six of Slotnick's students who are now out of prison continue to dance. They have formed a dance company called Figures in Flight: Released.

Getting together to practice is difficult: the dancers have to get permission from their parole officers, and find a time when they are all free from mandated rehabilitation programs and jobs. Despite this, they have performed a number of times alongside professional dance troupes.

This coming December, Figures in Flight: Released will be on stage at New York City's 92nd street Y.

Slotnick says that over the past seven years, she has not just been the teacher. She is also a student.

"They tell me what the dancing is about. It is not me going in there as some crazy lady and laying this on them. They tell me what has happened to them. I just went in there and started to teach a philosophy based on attention - attention being the heart of love.”

Next week on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition, a feature interview with Sister Elaine MacInnes, who has dedicated her life to teaching meditation to prisoners through her charity, Freeing the Human Spirit.


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