Susan Slotnick ’69 (Art Education) has spent more than 800 days behind the walls of The Woodbourne Correctional Facility, not as an inmate but as a volunteer, teaching prisoners the power of modern dance.
“I’ve always danced as a way to heal myself from pain and trauma,” said Slotnick. “I wanted to bring this power to people who needed to experience the freedom and healing that dance can provide."
For more than 18 years, Slotnick met with Sullivan County, New York, inmates once a week through the Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) program. She was their dance instructor, and ultimately their friend, choreographing routines and helping them reshape their lives.
“The dance environment in prison was transformed by the people in that room, including Susan, into a place of acceptance,” said former inmate Ray Brito. “That acceptance led to peace.”
Slotnik is a passionate, colorful person who believes that living a full life is not about eliminating struggle or trauma but instead learning how to move through it, sway in step with it, and accept its influence over who we become. This is why the inmates she worked with found her so relatable and her guidance so significant. She’s the "dance mom" who taught the men not only to move with the music but to gracefully navigate life’s ups and downs, promising peace both inside and outside the prison’s walls – a peace found within.
“She doesn’t realize that there is nothing that I will ever be able to do, or say, or show her that will ever be able to truly express the gratefulness I have for her,” said former inmate David Montalvo. “I can say it a thousand times and tell her I love her, but it will never really happen because I won’t know how to do it.”
Slotnick considers her prison work to be the pinnacle of her career, her self-actualization, a resonant combination of art, dance, teaching and mindfulness, all rooted in social justice.
“I’ve achieved Maslow’s hierarchy,” she said. “I found my life’s purpose and through this work, I’ve lived it.”
Like her volunteer work with prisoners, Slotnick’s professional life focused on dance and education. She created The Figures-In-Flight Dance School Company in Ulster County and taught there for more than 40 years. The company attained professional status in 1995, launching a paid tour of New York State schools with a dance drama aimed to prevent bullying. Her training was always in harmony with her humanistic values and everyone no matter their size, shape or finances was welcome. Slotnick’s choreography dealt with serious themes geared to inspire audiences and students toward social justice and activism. Her students, like the inmates she served, also studied a philosophy-based practice on mindfulness and kindness.
Slotnik’s work has been featured in numerous podcasts and magazines. She was Huffington Post's "Greatest Woman of The Day" in celebration of the 2010 Women's History Month. In 2014, she received the Caring Heart Award from Dance Studio magazine for her work with incarcerated populations.
Now retired from dance, Slotnick continues her career as a painter and writer. She has been a featured columnist for The New Paltz Times since 1998 and recently published a memoir titled “Flight: The Dance of Freedom” about her work with inmates.
Slotnick’s philosophy is layered but simple: life will not be easy, but each moment is meant to be lived.
“Your heart will break,” she says. “But you can’t remove those parts of your personal history. The good and the bad build our lives. I wouldn’t take out a single brick because then the whole thing would fall apart. We can’t take out anything.”