Susan Slotnick has spent six hours behind bars every week for the last 15 years. "Other people are out playing golf—women my age—or getting brunch," the 69-year-old choreographer says, laughing. Then, softly, "I love it there."
Slotnick has been teaching inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility modern dance in coordination with the Rehabilitation for the Arts program for a quarter century. Every Sunday, she instructs them the same way she does her latest and last youth modern dance troupe, Figures in Flight 4.
Since her original Figures in Flight company, Figures in Flight 1, which she founded 25 years ago, Slotnick has molded tiny dancers from kindergarten up through high school. The members of her original dance group are now in their early to mid-30s.
Slotnick teaches both her high school and Woodbourne dancers how to move, but also how to think. "I teach philosophy besides dance, based on the practice of life skills. I don't care if they keep dancing," Slotnick says. "It's like a self-development school through dance."
The irony of teaching the two companies—one, teenagers, and the other, incarcerated men—how to move with grace and poise, both on stage and through life, is how similar their foundations are. "Their circumstances are mirrored because I train them exactly the same way with exactly the same philosophy. [The prisoners] have never danced before, so they're a clean slate with modern dance," she explains. "They're also in a perfect situation to create talent."
While some advised against allowing teenagers and convicted inmates to perform together, Slotnick's students, like 18-year-old Cassidy Kristal-Cohen, say that those interactions have been inspirational. "Because of my work with Susan, I've decided that I'd like to go into criminal justice reform after hearing all of [the inmates'] stories," Kristal-Cohen says, having recently taken a criminal justice course at SUNY Ulster. She plans on continuing her studies at Hunter College this fall. "Her influence has opened my eyes to how screwed up the justice system is and how much reform is needed."
Slotnick doesn't believe anyone is born talented. She argues that talent is created under three conditions: repetition, imitation, and "when the conditions arise for it to be very difficult." In Woodbourne, there's a concrete floor with no barres or mirrors. Still, she says, she's teaching the inmates "exactly the way you'd train an eight-year-old going to an expensive ballet school."
Despite their environment or prison sentence, Slotnick is consistent in teaching all of her students to become the best dancers they can; she never stops raising the bar, which Kristal-Cohen attests to. "I've been dancing with Susan for 12 to 13 years now, and the first thing that comes to mind is the amount of discipline that Susan asks of her students in class from a really young age. When we're dancing, the amount of discipline that she asks of us is pretty great."
"I would say I'm constantly making them reach beyond what they've ever done before," Slotnick agrees. "I'm constantly saying, in a sense, 'This isn't good enough yet. This could be better, do it differently, be more present.'"
The control Slotnick exerts in her teaching, particularly with her Woodbourne prisoners, has earned her plenty of critical acclaim. She's been featured in the New York Times, on CBC, in Dance Magazine, and more, including the Huffington Post, where she was named one of the "Greatest Women of the Day" in recognition of Women's History Month.
Now that the last bow of a lifelong dance is near, Slotnick is ready to take her final flight this June. "Life is this long journey. Now that I'm in the end of my seventh decade, facing retirement, I wouldn't remove one day of my life, because everything led to what I've done with my life—and I've done some really great things."
On June 6 at 7pm, Slotnick's Figures in Flight 4 takes the stage for its final performance, at Quimby Theater at SUNY Ulster. Tickets: $20. Figuresinflight.eventbrite.com.