Category: Dance, Diplomacy and Kids’ Cancer (page 2 of 4)

Nharda – Commencement Speech 2014 for Millikin University


Millikin University – Decatur, IL – May 18, 2014

I have come 6,722 miles to be with you today. I did not really come to speak to you, or at you: my main purpose was to be here for this extended moment… you graduating from Millikin University, as I did fourteen years ago.

This time at a Millikin graduation, I have added this Masters hood I earned in the meantime and this microphone and 18 minutes speaking time.

As the first and only college graduate on either side of my family, you cannot imagine what this commencement speech is about to mean to me and probably to my parents and my husband sitting over there.

So, thank you. Merci. Shukran. [sign language for thank you] to…

-President White and Chris White

-Dean Laura Ledford

-Graduates and your families

-Staff at this Decatur Civic Center, including the sound board operator and those who will clean up when we file out of here.

-Faculty and Board of Trustees at Millikin University

-The university itself bcause Millikin taught me and changed me.

When I first arrived to Millikin in 1996, my style was exclusively “Goodwill.” No jeans or hoodies; because in high school I realized everyone wore jeans and hoodies everyday and I made a decision not to be everybody. I was stubborn. I wore scrubs and plaid a lot during my four years here. A smart girl who loved dance and international relations. No frills. Much Beck. When my parents, and best friends drove down from mid-Michigan and dropped me off at Millikin that Fall, we were all sad. I cried for a week and didn’t tell my mother. Later I realized she did the same.

Before I knew it, I was taking risks in critical thinking and choreography. With classes such as Ethics with Dr. Money, Spider Biology, and Modern Dance. Millikin was the perfect fit for me.

So yes, I came 6,722 miles to be with you today. Today is the most important word for me in that sentence. In Egyptian Arabic, the word for today is El Nharda. And Nharda is what I will give advice on today. Not going to cover your life or your grand future. Not even tomorrow. Nharda bas.

Are you ready?

First bit of advice…

  1. Sit up

During this ceremony, please sit up. And spread your wings.

2. Put some intention behind your Breathing.

[Lead audience in breathing exercise: 4 counts in, 4 counts hold, 4 counts out]

3. You will take a lot of pictures today. Photographers say they don’t take pictures, they make pictures. So when you are making pictures, remember that the light source comes from behind and you shine it on someone or something else. Also, hold your breath when you push the button to keep your camera still. So, the source comes from behind you… and you shine it on someone or something else [with gestures]. wink wink. I am not talking about life, just making pictures today, BUT the  source comes from behind and you shine it on someone or something else.

4. You are also going to be the subject of many many pictures today. Here is some advice from my friends in modeling. Put your chin one inch out and one inch down. Both a little proud, and a little bit humble. Proud and humble. Practice it with me.

Let’s practice it all. Sit up. Spread your wings. Put intention in your breathing. Remember the source comes from behind you and you shine it on someone or something else. You are both a little proud and a little humble.

5. Today, I’m going to ask you to see things from another’s perspective. Think about someone else here. Maybe your parents, or a professor, your bored little sister dragged here for your graduation ceremony, or your doting grandma. Or President White. I wonder how you are feeling today. See today from someone else’s perspective. Just sit with them. Hold their hand, lay your head on their shoulder. I think they will appreciate it.

6. Walk.

When I say walk, I mean walk! That is your only job today. It is the verb for this ceremony. Put your feet beneath you and stand up. Let’s practice that part. Ok, sit down. Today, you will walk! Listen and respond to the beat in your heart. You have options.

[walking option demonstration set to music: electro strut, laid back country stroll, confident We Are the Youth of the Nation power parade, know one knows the future wondering, or Egyptian Shaabi party]


Photo by Herald & Review

Let’s practice it all. Sit up. Spread your wings. Put intention in your breathing. Remember the source comes from behind you and you shine it on someone or something else. You are both a little proud and a little humble. Put your head on someone’s shoulder. And walk!

6. The next piece of advice for today is to hold your diploma like a passport, not a trophy on a shelf. The degree you will hold today will allow you new experiences and opportunities: apply to them all, even those that seem outside your field or how you label yourself. Let your degree be your passport into the world.

7. Feel your feelings fully then move on. Here’s a story. I was teaching dance to preschoolers in Chicago. Lots of pink ballerinas. One of those 3 year olds was bald and wonderful. She loved to wear black. She was witty and compassionate. She had brain cancer. She taught me many lessons. I am ever indebted. She died when she was four years old. One of the things she taught me was to feel all your feelings and then move one. We don’t have time to wallow. She felt every needle prick, fear, joy, nervousness, every emotion fully. Then she moved on. We are all scared, President White are you scared? We will feel many things. Feel them fully and then move on.

8. Network and meet new people today. When you network, look one level up and one level out. Meet professors, deans, anyone you would consider one level up. But also meet people one level out: maybe students in another department, from another country, maybe the staff of the Decatur Civic Center. Network one level up and one level out.

9. This next piece of advice comes from music. Are any of you graduates musicians, instrumentalists? Please stand up. You will probably know this one. With an instrument, when you are holing a note, there are no laserbeams. There has to be drive behind the phrase. No note should stay the same. Build or drop intensity and volume. Today will be a long, emotional day. Treat it like a long note; there are no laserbeams. There has to be drive behind the phrase. Build and drop intensity.

10. My last piece of advice for today is to be active in the world. Buy a newspaper, go for a walk off campus, visit a community center. Be active in the world, don’t just visit the world.

Remember this is advice for today, not for life. [wink]

[with gestures] Sit up. Spread your wings. Put intention in your breathing. Remember the source comes from behind you and you shine it on someone or something else. You are both a little proud and a little humble. Put your head on someone’s shoulder. And walk! Hold your diploma like a passport. Feel your feelings fully and then move on. Remember there are no laser beams. And be active in the world.

Thank you for this speech.


Photo by Herald & Review


Video to come soon.

Article: Millikin Commencement Speaker Steals the Show

How to Hope: A Post from Egypt on #DonnaDay

You will have 30 minutes to Map your Cancer Story. From the days before you were diagnosed to now and even tomorrow. Every needle prick, transfusion, round of chemo, surgery, recovery,… Include your feelings, the ups and downs. Be as accurate as possible. Use any symbols or metaphors you want.

Now take me or a friend on a Dance Journey through your map.

These were the instructions I gave to the teens from 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt this past weekend during their sleep-away camp at the Health & Hope Oasis in Wadi Natrun, Egypt. You might remember, I was honored to go last year as well. You could feel the weight of everything these kids have gone through in these 16 months between camps. Their maps were weighty.


For one of the sessions this camp, they brought in an Egyptian woman who specializes in Positive Psychology. She encouraged the teens to be positive, hopeful by shifting the way they take things.

When facing a bad situation, don’t…

1. Take it Personally

2. Take it as something that always happens, always will happen

3. Take it as a Universal

But instead…

1. Don’t take it personally

2. Remember it is temporary

3. Realize this is just a special circumstance


As we were waiting for the bus to the Health & Hope Oasis, I saw this girl. She had just minutes before found out she is in palliative care, which means no more treatment just pain killers to die in peace. She asked her mom to wheel her over to me, smiled for the first time in awhile and asked for my mobile number! Hahaha. Pure hope.

The palliative doctor says he is considered “the butcher” here because he helps kids die rather than live. He asked me to start an arts program specifically for the palliative patients and families. I hope I can. That would be incredible.

And remember my mom. She’s been facing her own cancer through chemo, major surgery, radiation burns, rehabilitating neuropathy, and so much more these past two years. Last Mother’s Day, we were all her kids and I thank you all for what you did for my family. Well my mom posted two words this week, “Cancer Free.”

Breast cancer is awful: it is a beast. It is scary and cruel. But unlike pediatric cancers, there is certain funding for research. There are advancements in treatment. There is a layer of hope.

In pediatric cancer, the hope is a lesson in itself. When they say all hope is lost, you still ask for the phone number.


Donna taught me hope.


Donna’s 4th Birthday Party – despite being told there would be no more treatment

How to Hope

1.  DONATE to childhood cancer research through the Donna’s Good Things shave event for St. Baldrick’s by clicking on the green “donate” button.

2.  SHAVE your head at our event on March 29 in Chicago by clicking on the blue “join us” button. Or if you are in Cairo, contact me.

3.  MAKE a camp possible for children with cancer in your area.

4. VOLUNTEER to lead dance, music, cooking, leadership or art activities at a camp or children’s cancer hospital.

5. BUY a St. Baldrick’s Super Hero t-shirt (just $14.99) for the kid or woman in your life who is your hero by clicking here.  All proceeds between now and February 28 will be credited to the Donna’s Good Things campaign.

6.  CREATE hope by getting involved with Donna’s Good Things or hosting your own event for St. Baldrick’s under the Donna’s Good Things Campaign.

7. DANCE in unexpected places.

An Ocean Full of Thanks: Artists Vs Childhood Cancer

A little while back, I put out a call for dance costume donations that would be sent to 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt for their Winter performance. Boxes full of costumes came in from dancers everywhere from Maine to California. I cannot thank everyone enough, but I will start the gratitude here, in time for Thanksgiving. Event updates and pictures are also headed your way as the event develops further (details at the bottom of this post).


Sending an ocean full of thanks to…

The amazing Patsy Garcia and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, School, Archives, Community Programs

for the heart, coordination and groundwork.

LOGO Pillow Green-2013-1


And to

The Dance Costume Donors

    • Easy Talent Academy – Cairo, Egypt
    • Gina Daley – Victor MT
    • Jennifer Gamache-Dubilo, Artistic Director, Artistic Dance Conservatory – East Longmeadow MA
    • Jean Jacquer, Stepping Stone Performers of Canaan – East Canaan CT
    • Leslie Scott, Founder/President, EDIFY Movement – Valley Village, CA
    • Betsy Melarkey Dunphy, Director, Studio 408 – South Portland ME
    • Claire (age 12) – Chicago IL
    • J. Quealy – Chicago IL
    • Stages Theatre Company – Hopkins MN
    • Westside Academy – Tigard OR
    • CS Lifkey – Sterling VA
    • Nicki Switzer, Mark Fisher Fitness – New York NY


The Event and Shipping Sponsors

    • US Embassy Cairo and the Chargé d’Affaires Ambassador David M. Satterfield
    • The Honorable Maged Refaat Aboulmagd, Consul General of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Chicago
    • Leslie Banas
    • Jennifer Lou Barnes Sotherden
    • Jamie Beckland & Michael Pope
    • Ann Cong
    • JR Glover
    • Rachel Lynn Jackson
    • Leslie Johnson
    • Maura Keefe
    • Ginger Gascon Menard
    • Celeste Miller
    • Mary Ellen Noonan
    • Mark Pascoli
    • Jennifer Reef
    • Jenny Sowry
    • Dennis Thomas
Dancing at 57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt

Dancing at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

Dancing at 57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt

Dancing at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt


57357: ARTS DAY

The children of 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt have performances and parties for them everyday. But they have never taken to the stage themselves, never been applauded. We plan to change that by coordinating an Arts Day this winter in collaboration with Egyptian and American artists in Cairo as well as artists in the States. Many of the patients are coming from poorer backgrounds, Syria/Sudan, and are caught in an increasingly ideologically divided country. Let’s help them be the artists they are.



  • More than 200 children with cancer will have the opportunity to perform or engage in art-making experiences during an Arts Day event in December/January.
  • More than 15 American and Egyptian artists will collaborate and exchange best practices in social practice arts.
  • The hospital staff and general arts community will increase the role and potential of the arts in community building and youth development.
  • We will increase understanding between Americans and Egyptians through coverage of the event on both American and Egyptian blogs and media outlets, having Americans donate the costumes and follow the event, and promoting the US Embassy event and performance on social media and materials.


A dynamic day of performance and art-making experiences for the patients and families at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt (including a costumed dance performance, musicians and an instrument petting zoo in the chemotherapy treatment center, drama and storytelling workshops on the in-patient floors, poetry or song in the lobbies, and a contemporary visual arts workshop and exhibition in the out-patient wing with the teen therapy group). Before the event, there would be Training workshops for the nursing staff and artists.

Let’s Get Dance Costumes for 57357

This is a call for dance costumes and dance wear (toddler, child, through to teen size). New or used but in decent condition. Accessories such as hats and vests will also be welcome for all the boys.

The children of 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt have performances and parties for them everyday. But they have never taken to the stage themselves, never been applauded. We plan to change that by putting on a performance this winter with an array of costumes sent from the States. We’re going for the eclectic look and the patients could keep them after the show. Many of the kids are coming from poorer backgrounds, Syria/Sudan, and are caught in an increasingly ideologically divided country. Let’s help them dance.

57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

Please send the donations to our friends at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival no later than November 1.

c/o Patsy Garcia

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

358 George Carter Rd

Becket, MA 01223


Please comment below what items you are sending so that we can keep an inventory.

***Please note that with the instability in Egypt, we would like to stay away from sending military or overly-patriotic American themed costumes at this time.

With a dancing heart, sending a big SHUKRAN (thank you).

57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

Is Dance the Love of Your Life?: Q’s/Cues from a 12-yr-old

Egypt has handed me many things over the past couple weeks.


  • Phone numbers for grocery home delivery, with a sense that life here is possible despite the instability masked in military crackdown.
  • Flyer for something in a language I can slowly read but not yet comprehend, with a sense that I am an outsider amongst friends. But then an older Egyptian woman came up to me today and asked  for directions to the Metro station. And not only did I understand her, I could answer her well in Arabic and share a friendly moment.
  • A sunburn, with a reminder that, “Yes Shawn, don’t forget you are in Egypt.”
  • Successful job interviews for jobs that don’t pay.
  • A 4-year-old dance student’s gift to me, a drawing of colorful squares, with a reminder about originality and vision. For me, this is the best student drawing I have ever received, in any country. I am a dance teacher and get loads of child sketches of ballerinas. One student even gave me a charcoal masterpiece that I immediately framed. But these simple colored blocks speak to me. Especially because with her class I am trying to teach them this month the concepts of standing still and of improvisation.
  • A mugging where I lost my passport and iPhone amongst other things. And because of having to rely on old photos, I wrote Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?  Lots has happened since writing that and over 150000 people reading it online. One thing is that I have been receiving emails from people around the world. Some are former Broadway performers, an Iraqi war veteran and dancer, elite musicians, and high school/undergraduate/graduate students who now have my blog post as required reading in their courses this Fall. The oldest person to respond was 78. The youngest was 12. And she’s who I am writing about today.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 8.10.57 PM

Her name is Maurissa and she is a dancer. She is a ballerina writing a book entitled Feels Like Flying celebrating dance in order to benefit the scholarship fund at her ballet school, The School of Madison Ballet (which her mother describes as “a serious ballet school, that does have jazz and artistry and dance therapy too, but by Maurissa’s age if you are not eventually going to dance on pointe there are other places you would go).

Maurissa started this project in 2010 when economics started affecting her ballet school. She has benefitted from the scholarship fund since she started classes there 7 years ago and she worried that other kids like her could not dance if there was no money available. She is not yet to the point when she can really publicize the project, as she is still trying to secure funding for photography and website, publishing etc.

Maurissa is interviewing dancers; and after she and her mom read my blog post, they decided to include me as one of the interviewees. A deep honor. Her mother explained, “Because of who she is as a young person and a dancer, she is focusing on everything positive she can find, especially diversity in race, body-type, gender, etc., people who use dance to help others, skills that ballet gives people that helps them in other areas of life, and the careers that dancers find after their training/performance career is over.”

She sent a long set questions. As I was reading them, one question stood out, hidden amongst others, “Is dance the love of your life?”

I stopped. I asked my boyfriend out loud, without context or introduction. “Ummm…Is dance the love of my life?”

“Yes.” He responded back without hesitation. “Yes, it is.”

Well, I will get back to that. But first, here are Maurissa’s questions and a few of my answers. I will save the rest for the release of Feels Like Flying.

How did you find ballet?  Who discovered or most nurtured your amazing talent? Were your parents/family supportive of a ballet career? What is your best dancing memory?  Is dance the love of your life?

I am biracial and I read there is only something like 1-2% black dancers in major companies, do you see this ever changing?  Do you feel that minorities (performers or audience members) are just not that into ballet?  Do you think economics keeps minorities out of ballet?  Something else? 

I’m OBSESSED with my pointe shoes! Do you remember how it felt to get your first pair?  How old were you? How did you deal with the pain?  Did you ever feel discouraged, specifically with pointe training, and if so what helped you to keep trying? 

I was excited for the physical challenge of pointe shoes and remember my pretty immediate disappointment watching all my friends excel in them. My poor arches and (sadly and incorrectly self-labeled) fat thighs could not keep up. I became jealous and worked my tail off just to have enough technique for a spot in the back.

After years of this, when I was 16, my ballet teacher Linden Martin saw right into my heart. She gave me permission to take off my pointe shoes. And instead of continuing with pointe, I could use the time in class to take space in the corner of the studio and choreograph a contemporary solo. My teacher was amazing. That was exactly what I needed. She brought me videos of Twyla Tharp, told me I was a Lil Twyla, and supported me to think about finding my creative voice.

In college, I was introduced to modern and other styles. I was able to explore participatory and pedestrian choreography. Jazz and ballet were still a strong part of my life. But I never pointe shoes on my feet again.

***Note her mother’s response to this theme was so poignant; I had to share it. “[Maurissa wrestled with pointe] so hard last year I think at times she wanted to quit and she considered joining a competition sort of school instead. Summer Intensive gave her fresh perspective and suddenly pointe started to get easier and less painful. She has wide, hard-to-fit feet and is neither built nor colored like a traditional ballerina, these are facts. But she is realizing she does have an arch, and her body is lengthening and thinning naturally with growth and the hard work she puts in. Maurissa has…beautiful long arms and people tell me she draws their eye no matter who else is onstage.”


Maurissa’s first pointe performance, 2013

Do you think the major ballet companies will start to hire more dancers who do not have the “perfect ballet body”?

What was it like to dance professionally? 

My Artistic Director once said, If “ballet” was not in the title of the show (he was talking about Dracula – A Rock Ballet) we would sell a lot more tickets.  What do you think it would take to make ballet “cool” to more people?  

Sometimes I don’t even use the word dance. Sometimes the word ballet is a draw. It depends. I believe deeply that you have to meet people where they at, learn from them, before discovering the relevance of the performance or dance experience in their lives. I think about the events I don’t go to because of the title (banking, engineering, corporate strategy) and then think about what it would take to get me there. What is the relevance?

What advice do you have for a young dancer like me who has big hopes and dreams?  What do you think is the best way for me to prepare for a career involving ballet that combines helping others?

Water the seeds of those dreams every day, but let them grow and morph. As for the hopes, find at least one every day.

The best words of advice I ever got were, “Apply to everything.” Once I started doing that, I realized I had to start defining and applying myself in this world in different ways. I found friends and inspiration outside of dance and that has made a big difference.

A dear student of mine who passed away from cancer at age 4 taught me many lessons. Her name was Donna (find out more at Donna’s Good Things). One of those lessons came when her treatment was making her really wobbly. She said, “If I fall, I can either get up or ask the teacher for help.” Brilliant. Go out and try things. And if you fall, you have two choices: get yourself up or ask someone for help.

What are you working on now?

I am working to build a Community Arts Posse here in Cairo, Egypt. This will be a group of Egyptian artists who meet monthly and then volunteer to bring performances, classes and experiences into hospitals, refugee centers, schools, street events, etc. In addition, I am teaching ballet and American jazz dance.

Maurissa’s questions wowwed me. What an amazing young dancer and entrepreneur. I hope that someone out there reading this can help fund her project.

I have yet to answer her on the question, “Is dance the love of your life?” The answer is not simple. But I would ultimately say no. Dance is not the love of my life: it is the way I can love my life. Through dance, I can love others. By dancing, I can connect to another person during their lifetime, despite cancer or language barriers or war or misunderstandings. As a dancer, I can comprehend and feel things. As a dancer, I can actually feel this moment my friends and I recently had on the Nile.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Calling All Artists to the Feast

Eid begins tomorrow. Summer heat continues. School will probably start here in Egypt in about a month. Who knows what this country will look like then but there will be a new US ambassador. It is almost time to countdown to the end of Ramadan. One last day of fasting.


Arabic countdown for English-speaking beginners like me


ashara = ten (looks like a one and a dot)


tisa = nine (looks like a nine)


temeynia = eight (looks like an upside-down V)


sabaa = seven (looks like a V)


sitta = six (looks like a seven)


khemsa = five (looks like a circle)


arbaa = four (looks like a backwards three)


teleta = three (looks like a backwards seven with an extra bump)


itneen = two (looks like a backwards seven)


wahid = one (looks like a graceful one)



Teaching dance in a Northwest Bosnian village in 2011

Teaching dance in a Northwest Bosnian village in 2011


Now I was supposed to go to Greece recently for the UNESCO CID World Congress on Dance, but I was robbed. And the stolen passport and visa created too much drama. In the end, it became impossible to make it to Athens on time. Fortunately, the guts of my presentation were read aloud in my absence. You can read it here under the 26 July section. This non-happening trip was funded in part by a grant from Donna’s Good Things. Since the flight was nonrefundable, I feel a need to do a bit of a project to fully respect the grant.

So I had an idea.

Eid means feast. Let’s cook up some artistic goodness with all the momentum growing from the Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up? response. This is what I’m awkwardly, charmingly calling the August Feast of Artsy Good Things.

I am asking all artists reading this (define artist as you like) to go out and do good things this month. Here are some examples of what you could do:

  • play an instrument in the treatment room while children are getting chemotherapy
  • go to a shelter or hospital with your camera, set up a photo shoot area, and do lovely family portraits
  • bring your children to an elder care facility and all dance together for an hour
  • paint a portrait of a child in Hospice
  • bring a dance company to perform all throughout the halls of a summer school
  • join a Board of some kind and talk like an artist
  • create and donate costume pieces or fashion accessories for children in a Ronald McDonald House
  • set up an instrument petting zoo in a public park or hospital lobby
  • talk to a teen who is facing hardship (medical, economic, social), learn from them, then co-teach something and help them set up a kick-butt portfolio
  • lead an arts workshop in a divided or insular community, faith-based institution, or refugee camp
  • take an arts-based class in a neighborhood you’ve never been to before
  • work with a veteran to compose an original song, poem or screenplay
  • teach children of the incarcerated how to create beautiful things with shadow boxes
  • teach seniors how to create beautiful things with video and digital media
  • whatever show your working on, invite someone unexpected (politician, nurse, homeless teen, security guard, cleaning staff) in on a rehearsal

The idea is to get out in the world and do some good with the arts. For an hour or two this month, or much more extensively if you wish. Please write in the comments section below what your Good Thing is. These will then be passed on to folks at Donna’s Good Things so they can see all the artistic good being done in Donna’s name.

Together we will feast on the arts this Eid. And just see what happens!

Am I A Dancer Who Gave Up? A Follow-Up

So I have this here website. The URL is simply my name because I had to setup a portfolio site back in 2006 as part of a masters thesis project grant requirement. The site had been up with the same content for seven years (embarrassingly) before I revamped it prior to heading off to Egypt last summer. The Fulbright Commission highly promotes blogging, so I thought I would give it a go even though I’m not trained or practiced as a writer.

And I have been chronicling my experiences here this past year on a personal level. When big things happen in Cairo, and blogger friends are kind enough to share a link, my posts have reached an impressive 1,800 readers. That has happened twice.

But something strange started happening with my last post. I watched the number of hits surge past 5,000 with scary speed. And these weren’t just shares by friends and family. Am I A Dance Who Gave Up? has now been read by 78,000+; received 22.2K likes; was picked-up by Huffington Post and was the featured blog post on Huffington Post Arts, crazy enough, thus reaching a bare minimum of 47K more; reposted by Regional Dance America, Answers4Dancers, Association of Teaching Artists, and from both former professors and former students; shared over and over on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest; and was commented on by 90+ people (all but 3 were positive). In addition, I was the recipient of 37 beautiful and passionate e-mails from strangers, some sharing their own stories, some inviting me to a conversation or project.

Viral. If even a bit. Wild.

You can understand why I am absolutely floored. This post wasn’t about a experience in Egypt: this wasn’t a story about cancer. It was nothing completely new, it was not a manifesto or even a completely thought-out argument of any kind. It was a personal exploration of professional identity.

But what is so powerful is that this massive and passionate response isn’t about me. My sharing of my story kicked open a lil something in the world. My friend Liz articulated it best,

“There is something big here that you’ve uncovered, something that clearly resonates with tens of thousands of people who want something more from their art.” 

Messages are coming in from artists ages 16 to 78, from Spain to Iraq to Bosnia, from musicians to dancer/urban planners, from military veteran artists, and from recent arts graduates and their parents. Even Liz Lerman herself. Some people found the post inspiring and comforting. Some people are stopping to reflect on their own definitions and stories.

One person asked me to do a follow-up post about “that crucial moment when things changed.” The reader went on to tell me, “I find it daunting now to know which steps to take, what organizations to contact, how to learn.”

So I thought I should definitely respond to his request. Starting with this…


Realization One: Take risks and get off campus

There was a senior choreographer at Millikin when I was a freshman. Instead of auditioning a piece for the semi-annual dance concert on campus, he rented out the downtown theater and produced his own evening-length dance show covering subjects from rape to war. His name is Chad. And he was the cool artist, social entrepreneur before I even knew what that was.


Realization Two: Religion and international understanding are important

On September 11, 2001, I was in to Day Two of my experience living and volunteering as a youth arts worker with young offenders in a predominantly Muslim community in East London. The only American around. I realized pretty quickly that religion and foreign policy matter. I must dance with people, their whole selves and identities, not just the dancer parts.


Realization Three: There is an actual field

Community Arts, Arts Integration, Teaching Artistry, Youth Arts Development, Citizen Artists, the Informal Arts, Cultural Diplomacy, Dance and Movement Therapy… they exist. And there are conferences, journals, courses, books and people available who have been doing this for decades, all around the world. Since Hull House. I just had to look.


Realization Four: I’m tired of talking to and dancing with dance people

In a one-month span, I went to a dance conference in Milwaukee and a dance competition outside of Chicago. I found myself skipping sessions at both and pretending to have a headache so that I didn’t have to talk to anymore dance people. Dance people are great: I am one of them. But when we get together, I find the conversations excruciating. Picking apart some detail of ticket sales or outreach or technique or evaluation. How to keep rich folk and philanthropists happy. I get geeked by some of these concepts, but having the same conversation on loop… no thanks. And I was pretty sure the audience was stuck on the same set of faces.

At the same time I started to meet cool non-dance people through personal circumstances and networking. Kids and families who face childhood cancer are some of the most amazing people you will ever meet. I have a new friend who survived a concentration camp and torture in northwest Bosnia. He went on to start an arts camp for children and to produce a film. I have Egyptian artist friends who launched a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture. I have the honor of being friends with The Violence Interrupters, the youngest member of the European Parliament, journalists in Palestine and Syria, pediatric oncologists and climate change researchers. These were the conversations that started bring life to my life. And when I spoke to these new friends, I needed a better answer to the question, “So what do you do?” And I needed to build and join more tables.

Myself and a few fellow members of the British Council's TN2020 during the SDA/NATO Conference in Brussels on the role of culture in conflict prevention.

Myself and a few fellow members of the British Council’s TN2020 during the SDA/NATO Conference in Brussels on the role of culture in conflict prevention.


Realization Five: Kids face cancer, genocide, dangerous streets, revolutions, and things I couldn’t imagine; People die but before that, they live; and Dancing means so much to them all 

Donna Quirke Hornik and I at Performing Arts Limited studio in Chicago, IL. 2009.

Donna and I at Performing Arts Limited studio in Chicago, IL. 2009. RIP. [Donna’s Good Things]


One of my former dance students in Chicago, now an employee of the Museum of Contemporary Art. He’s a brilliant dancer and an inspiration to me.

A student of mine dancing in the former war fields of Northwest Bosnia.

A student of mine dancing in the former war fields of Northwest Bosnia during the Most Mira festival.

Liberal groups take over Tahrir Square. Cairo, Egypt. November 2012.

My view of the power of Tahrir Square. Cairo, Egypt. November 2012. [Artists as Catalysts]

When it comes to resources and places to start, the list is exhaustive. But I think the best service I could do at this point would be to share some of the organizations and projects that have reached out to me because of this blog post:

Exit 12 Dance Company Through movement, they educate audiences about the reality of war, advocate diversity and mutual understanding through cultural exchange, and champion the humanity and dignity of all persons.

ASTEP- Artists Striving to End Poverty is a networking force for artists to use their gifts working with children in extreme situations. Working in NYC with refugee kids, Florida with migrant kids, Africa with HIV affected kids, India with kids from the slums and lowest caste, and Ecuador for extremely poor kids. They just started a partnership this year with The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp with kids who are facing life threatening illnesses.

Keshet Dance Company provides daily programming with a customized curriculum for incarcerated youth at the state juvenile detention center; programming integrating dancers of all abilities, including dancers with physical and/or developmental disabilities; weekly dance programming for homeless youth; international exchanges with Israeli communities….etc

Genesis Sarajevo Dance Theatre has a mission to spread dance & artistic opportunities throughout the world with a more specific focus on post-conflict and developing countries/regions.  Their work has been focused on Bosnia and Herzegovina and this year they have an opportunity to expand to Cambodia, so we hope this is a reality in our near future.

UW Study of Learning in Embodied and Artistic Disciplines

Yes, You Can Dance! is a vehicle to share the joys and benefits of dancing with others.  They run a ballroom dance program for Special Needs students, provide dance opportunities for Senior Citizens and support a Dance for PD in Pittsburgh.

The DanceOn Network

Peer Practice  

The Healing Network

Center for Creative Placemaking provides expertise on how to utilize the arts and culture as tools for community, social and economic development.

Liz Lerman’s book of essays Hiking the Horizontal


Thank you to those of you with dreams you don’t give up on, but rather allow to get bigger. The tens of thousands of us who want more from our art.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Am I A Dancer Who Gave Up?

In 2006, I met the real Twyla Tharp for the second time in my life. The first time was at Jacob’s Pillow where I got the opportunity to perform front row in The One Hundreds. My nickname growing up was “Lil Twyla” and I wanted to be a smart, sassy choreographer/dancer like her. When we met in 2006, we joked, posed back-to-back, and discussed the role of humor and wit in modern dance. Then I brought out the handwritten invitation that she sent to me when I was 16. I never made it to her studio, but getting that letter in my mailbox was one of the greatest moments in my life.


Twyla (left). Shawn (right).

In 2010, I went back to my alma mater, Millikin University, as one of two alumni selected to speak to the then current theatre and dance undergraduate body. I spoke about working with a child with cancer, leading an arts project with juvenile offenders at a community center in East London, and the role of arts in public schools. This speech was before my projects in Bosnia, Egypt, etc.

After my talk, I opened the floor to questions. One of the undergraduates asked me the following, seriously,

“Did you have any sort of breakdown when you gave up on your dreams?”

It took me a moment to process her question. For her and her peers, dance and theatre students focused on training, headshots, audition skills, and getting their big break, my career trajectory as an artist seemed to be a failure, a major detour. I composed myself and explained that I had not given up on my dream; my dream had gotten bigger.


Dancing with the children of 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

I am dancing, with and for others. I am and will always be a dancer. I take that with me, in the ways I think, develop ideas, collaborate, move. I haven’t been on a professional or semi-professional stage in six years, but I am a dancer. Yup. Because I say so. I am an artist who had decided to join tables off the professional stage.

When it comes to diplomacy, an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to the Board of Directors or a School Board, an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to sustainability policy, an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to facing death, an artist needs to be at the table.


Artists need to be in on…

  • Cancer research and treatment
  • Conflict prevention, mediation and resolution
  • Inter-religious and Inter-cultural dialogue and education
  • Military training and homecoming
  • Youth development
  • Addressing racism and bigotry
  • Community development and organizing
  • Divided and insular communities
  • Hospitals, prisons/detention facilities, corporations, public schools
  • City planning, housing and urban development
  • Policing and crime prevention
  • Parades and festivals
  • Education and professional development
  • Elder care, day care…

The artistic contribution to these areas can be revolutionary. And I am writing from Cairo, Egypt, so I do not use that word lightly.

The dream is huge.

Scott Walters says in his latest article, A New Education for a New Theatre, “So much of our education in the arts is focused on artistry as a product to be sold in the marketplace. I think we also need to teach young artists that part of their responsibility is to share the process with others. Instead of seeing themselves as special and separate from their community, instead of seeing their role as ‘saying it to their faces’ young artists need to commit to using their talents in service of others.”

I decided to be an artist in the world. I teach dance, I lead dance experiences, I choreograph, I manage and evaluate programs, consult, share, think, write. I’m a professional and a dancer, but you probably wouldn’t call me a professional dancer. I read and join projects relating not to Broadway but to cancer, death, green cemeteries, cultural diplomacy, religion, genocide, geography, databases, divided communities (from Belfast to Bosnia).

And it certainly feels like fulfilling a dream, rather than giving up on one.


Truth is, I never truly pursued the traditional path of a professional dancer heartedly. I was sick of being told what to do, where every part of my body should be at every moment. A career as a professional dancer focuses on one’s faults, not one’s contributions. I have always been a pretty smart dancer, picking up on movement quickly. And I can really move, travel, jump, turn, extend, flip, and perform. I’m a good dance artist. My choreography is accessible and provocative, empowering even a beginner dancer to find a sense of agency and abandon. As a teacher, I help my students learn to rely on themselves for focus and self-correction, find the joy in their own movement, empathize and grow in a community of learners.

But because my legs and back were less than flexible, my plie’ less than adequate, my feet less than articulate, my extensions far from impressive; I was judged but those elements mostly. And they would be a block in any audition, including Cirque du Soleil who flew me to New York to audition nearly a decade ago.

If I had worked hard to improve those faults and had somehow succeeded in an audition, I would have found myself in the back of a music video, donning feathers and fishnets in Vegas, shuffling in a non-singing Broadway ensemble, getting seasick as a cruiseline performer, or being directed to dance someone else’s contemporary vision.

Those directions work for thousands of dancers, including my dear friends. They are respectable and impressive careers. But not for me. A couple months ago I found a title that made sense in my head… social practice dance artist and manager. This works for now.

My former colleague gave me the honor of saying the following, “Shawn is the rare individual that excels at both the visionary and operational work of running a program. She is trained as a dancer and choreographer and is also a consummate, professional manager. She can access the best from both worlds and offers an expansive new model of leadership well suited to the needs of the culturally diverse global economy.” Cynthia Weiss, former Assistant Director at the Center for Community Arts Partnerships, Columbia College Chicago.

And now I’m looking to build a new chapter in my life that incorporates all of this. Maybe the University of Chicago, or UN, or Make-A-Wish, or the British Council, or a city headquarters, a community arts program in some country, revolutionizing dance and theatre education…   I am realizing the job hunt can only be truly successful at this point by reaching out, throwing my arms open, and seeing what I find.

No, I never gave up on my dream. Do you agree?

My bio and CV can be found here.

How to Dance With Kids With Cancer

*Seven bits of advice accumulated after a few years of work on two continents.

1. Dance with the kid, not the cancer.
Smile and look them in the eyes, not in the tumors. Some will look sick, some won’t. Doesn’t matter. Play with the kid as you would any other child that age. Don’t patronize or fake a smile. Bring your boogie. Bring your own joy.
57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt - Photo by Mohamed Radwan

57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt – Photo by Mohamed Radwan

2. Dance with their physical abilities, not their limitations.
Most patients have some sort of physical challenge they are needing to overcome due to their treatments (nausea, loss of balance and coordination, pain in one leg, inability to hop or run, on crutches or in wheelchairs, favoring one side, etc.). Their challenges come and go. Start with their abilities. Introduce movements that can be modified and made fun for all participants. But also push them a bit to go beyond what you or they think their bodies can do.
Forget cancer, we be dancing. - Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago

Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

3. Leave out your own fears of death.
Terminality (I think I just made up that word) is a part of life. Realize you will lose patients and those who survive may have life-long side effects from their treatments. Choose your words wisely and don’t assume you know how they feel. Keep religion out of it as that is the role of other adults in their lives. Help these children “live until they die” as my wise friend once said. And if a child’s lifetime is short and comes to an end, continue to say his or her name. Stay in touch with the family. Also realize that when a dancer stops attending your workshops, it could be a very good thing. Remission. You can work towards a performance but be very flexible because circumstances can change in an instant.
57357 Children's Cancer Hospital Egypt - Photo by Mohamed Radwan

57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt – Photo by Mohamed Radwan

4. Get the whole family on the dance floor.
Parents, nurses, siblings, volunteers, doctors, therapists, staff, visitors… the whole hospital family. Have a few chairs available if some patients or adults may need to sit down; but even if seated, every one in the room participates. That’s the rule, given with a smile.
Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

5. Keep them developing.
Focus on (re)developing balance, coordination, upper/lower and brain/body connection, dexterity in ankles and wrists, cross-lateral movement, core strength, stamina and stretch/stillness. Use activities for a range of ages. Remember that the cancer is the beast within, so facilitate movements that bring these kids back in love with their body after surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments. Learn from dance therapists, physical/occupational therapists, and Brain Dance. But none of these areas are enough for what you will be doing. You will need a broader, more joyful palate of activities to dance with the group.

6. Keep them healthy.

Breathe. Often.

Don’t smoke anywhere near the hospital or workshop venue. Wash your hands before and after the session (don’t forget thumbs and fingertips). If you feel like you have a bug of any kind, wear a face mask. Model healthy eating and self confidence. Limit physical contact between dancers. Check the room for any slippery spots, sharp edges or other dangers.

Donna Quirke Hornik and I - Performing Arts Limited, Chicago, IL

Donna Quirke Hornik and I at Performing Arts Limited studio in Chicago, IL. 2009.

7. Follow their lead.
Ask questions and listen to the answers. Keep the session calm and organized so that, together, you can follow the curiosity or burst into laughs. These kids know have to have fun. Learn from them. You will be the better for it.

Full Circles

One of my first blog posts from Cairo last Fall described an encounter with a special man and an initial tour of the High Institute of Ballet. He had made an impact on my impressions of this place.

“The office, which had been abuzz with activity of both female and male faculty rushing around negotiating student files, now becomes unusually still and quiet as the Director of Cairo Opera Ballet enters. He is a bit of an aloof and cultured character. I cannot figure him out just yet but am impressed just by the aura. He wears a brown vest and light wash jeans, is gallant yet slim, and when introduced to me, says nothing, kisses the back of my hand, slowly and certainly.

Prestigious. A long tradition of it.”

Last week, I attended the final performance and the final exams of the students I taught this Fall. I hadn’t seen them since January. For the performance, the students took to the grand stage of the Cairo Opera House. Audience was invitation-only, parents and afficianados. Flamenco, traditional dances from Upper Egypt, male ballet students flying through the air, special appearances by elite professionals, and a high-energy all-girl take on Gangnam Style.

But during Act II, the recital rook a somber turn as the High Institute remembered a special man who had recently passed. An enormous portrait was lowered onto stage as a backdrop. This was the same man I had met during that first visit to the Institute office. Abdel Moneim Kamel. The esteemed director of the Cairo Opera House for decades, a first-rank ballet dancer, and a loved dance educator.

May he rest in a dancing peace.

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 3.34.25 PM

A few days later I returned to the Institute to watch the examinations of my former students. I hadn’t seen them since the end of the first semester. If you read my previous post about my feelings of the exam process, you know this was a pedagogical challenge for me. I wasn’t sure what sort of impact I had had. Was this Fulbright experience worth it? Worth anything? For them, the other teachers, for me?


As I watched the students, I definitely saw more bolder movement and a willingness to step up to the lead even if they weren’t the best dancer. Those are two things I had hoped to bring to the Institute: an equality of expectation and a push to dance with full capacity. Then the students performed one of the routines I had choreographed (but this time to techno music instead of The Decemberists).


The backdrop for all this was a bit of disturbing news for us foreigners in the city. An American citizen and director of the CASA program being stabbed in the neck. A planned bomb attack thwarted. Some of the same alertness that we had here in September following the events at the embassy. This time around, I am in love with the people and the good I am able to share.

I am also still leading dance activities at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt and today was the best dancing day at the hospital ever! I wish I could have stopped and taken a picture. The outpatient playroom where we dance every Tuesday was packed. No one was sitting out, which typically happens. And when a young boy with a mass of a tumor growing on his jaw grabbed my hand to try his first leap-turn combination, I could actually feel his joy. Staff and parents were fully supportive.

My plan has always been to build a more sustainable dance program at 57357 with other dance practitioners. I don’t want the dancing to end when my time here does. But this has been more difficult than expected. Dancers here are incredibly busy. Plus there is little history of dancers and artists in hospitals, schools, and other public places. I led one professional development workshop in December, but most of the participants were too young, there was no translator, and nothing ever came of it.

At least I thought.

Today I walked into the volunteer office inside 57357 and a woman says, “Hi Shawn! Great to see you! Do you remember me?” (translated from Arabic). I had found her face familiar but wasn’t able to place her. Turns out she is a graduating student who was at that workshop in December. She had decided to follow-up on those ideas and was there at the hospital today to start her volunteer application process!

Hopefully she will be one of many dance practitioners at the 57357 Volunteer Appreciation Day next year.


Volunteer Appreciation Day at 57357

I am ending this blog post with an appeal. Every year, a few times a year, I raise funds for different causes. My Facebook friends have come to expect year. Like a cycle, I have raise at least $3,000-5,000 for the past five years. But this year is harder for several reasons. My goals are binational, both monetary and terpsichory.

Please click here, read what we are trying to do, and donate what you can. Any amount. Any currency. Doing good is not a one-time thing, not linear; it is a repetition of dancing circles.  

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