May-June 2016 | Thinking Out Loud | Dancing to Freedom

By Edwin V. Santana

It happened so fast: one day, 24 months ago, I began learning basic modern dance techniques like roll-downs and tendus. After that, I performed in several shows for 100-plus audience members. Now I’m paying it forward by teaching others how to dance. And I’m incarcerated!

Under the tutelage of Susan Slotnick, dance instructor/choreographer at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York, I’ve become a dancer. (See “Thinking Out Loud: Finding Gratitude,” November 2014.) Not only have I conditioned my 40-year-old body to do difficult steps and phrases with as much grace as I can muster, but now I’m tackling the task of teaching them. Along with two other advanced students, I help train our program’s new members (jokingly referred to as “new jacks”).

I teach the group when neither Susan nor her co-instructor, Bethany Wootan-Noel, is scheduled to come in. As the oldest member of the team, I find that teaching, as well as dancing, challenges my body. Although I’m not frail, I’m not as limber as I used to be. Fortunately, those who sign up for the class are usually older men who have no knowledge of dance. Perfect!

I started the same way: “What’s a plié?” “What’s a flat back?” “I have to do what?

Reinforcing the lessons learned from Susan is important, whether it’s doing a C-curve correctly (à la Martha Graham) or simply pointing the feet. “Repetition is everything,” Susan says. However, I’ve discovered that teaching isn’t as easy as she makes it seem; patience, dedication, and understanding also are crucial.

Each shape is a word; each movement is a sentence. Each improvisation is an idea, an emotion extrapolated by reaching or stretching.

Growing up, I played many sports, but that’s all I did—play. I never fathered any children, and since I made prison my second home I never had a relationship with my two younger brothers or my nephews. I never taught anyone to throw a baseball, catch a football, or shoot a basketball with hopes of becoming the next Carmelo Anthony.

Teaching dance fills that void. Dance is different, though, more like poetry being expressed physically. (And I love poetry.) Each shape is a word; each movement is a sentence. Each improvisation is an idea, an emotion extrapolated by reaching or stretching. It doesn’t matter if it’s lethargic or swift, huge or compact—dancing is, like life, about natural movements.

However, teaching something I just learned frustrates me sometimes. When I feel that way, though, I hear Susan’s voice: “Dancing while we are frustrated, angry, or stressed out brings out the best in us.” She’s right. I can’t argue with her 30-odd years of experience.

Teaching does have its fun points. For example, showing dance moves to the new jacks invigorates me. The routines Susan has choreographed for the program over 10 years aren’t tricky, but they can be difficult. Once the new jacks are familiar with the steps, music cues, and timing, I find it wonderful to perform alongside them. Seeing them dance is like watching them run the bases after hitting their first triple. Magical.

I love modern dance. I love being a dancer and a teacher (even one who got a late start). I use dance as a medium to redirect negative energy while expressing myself in an emotional and vulnerable way. Because dance is a discipline as well as an art form, being a student as well as a teacher helps me learn about myself. Leading a class allows me to focus on qualities I’ll need when I’m released—like fortitude, attention, and grit—in order to maintain a positive lifestyle beyond the prison walls. Joining Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is out of the question, but teaching dance to at-risk youth isn’t.

I’ve been told that redemption is a great big stage with beautiful, bright lights of forgiveness. If that’s true, then I can’t wait to walk, roll, run, or leap across it. Meanwhile, I’ll dance my way to freedom.

Edwin V. Santana is a student of Susan Slotnick who took up modern dance as an adult.