The Sunday Magazine

Figures in Flight - A documentary about dance in prison

Susan Slotnick is always moving. She is sixty-eight. A woman with presence. For decades, she has taught dance to children and teens in her hometown of New Paltz, New York, bringing good posture, proper foot position, a lot of discipline and the joy of movement into their lives....
Susan Slotnick is always moving. She is sixty-eight. A woman with presence. For decades, she has taught dance to children and teens in her hometown of New Paltz, New York, 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 for the past seven years, Susan has driven an hour up through the mountains to the Woodbourne Correctional Facility to see them, 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, Susan leads them through exercises and dances until their muscles ache, and she is satisfied they have the moves down pat.

Then they sit in a circle and talk.

Susan calls it her 'philosophy class.'

It's all part of preparing for a performance they're planning for 800 fellow inmates.

Susan founded this dance program with support from an organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. It's the only one for men in a North American prison; one of the few dance programs for male prisoners in the world.

Six of Susan 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.

Next week on 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."

David Gutnick produced "Figures in Flight" and also took some photos. Check out the slideshow below.

NOTE: On November 15, 2014, "Figures in Flight" was honored with the Prix Judith-Jasmin, in the Profiles category. It's a prestigious award presented annually by the Professional Journalists' Assocation of Quebec.


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