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5 Lessons I Learned From Frank Shawl (12/27/31–10/4/19)

Courtesy of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

For seven decades, Frank Shawl's bright and kind spirit touched thousands of dancers in the studio and in the audience.

After dancing professionally in New York City and with the May O'Donnell Dance Company, Shawl moved with Victor Anderson to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in 1958. It is the longest running arts organization in Berkeley.

The two ran their own company for 15 years and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center became a home for dance for students and artists alike. It currently runs 120 classes and workshops every week for children and adults, plus artist residencies, rehearsal space and intimate performances. (If you have never visited, the Center is actually a large house converted into four studio spaces.)

Shawl taught modern classes at the studio until 1990, performed into his late 70s and took classes at the Center into his mid 80s.

As I simultaneously mourn and honor Frank—my dear friend, fellow dancer, mentor and boss—I reflect on a few lessons that I learned from him. These five ideas relate to our various roles in dance as students, performers, teachers and administrators.


1. Be a teaching artist. I personally love the term "teaching artist," and Frank offers the true meaning of this phrase. He showed me that teaching, choreographing, performing and working in arts administration were all the same needle and thread going through our life fabric. It was all interconnected and all deeply valued.

2. Do the work. And by "work" I mean the training, rehearsing and general studio time. It is about the rigor, the commitment and the curiosity. Showing up. "You have to develop and maintain," I once quoted him for an article I wrote. "This is what gives range and longevity to an artist. You can't just wish for it. Class makes you constantly aware of something you have to maintain. It's about pushing the boundary, but not losing what you already have."

3. Tend to your own fire. This is for all of us arts administrators and studio owners. We can feel impassioned, short-changed, overworked and under-appreciated. In our field, we each possess a fire and force to keep our work and our ideas happening. But what I learned from Frank was that you had to keep this in check. You had to remain kind. You had to find a way to take a breath, get up in the morning and believe that a new day brings new chances and opportunities, for you and colleagues alike. The longevity of his nonprofit, and its impact on 1,000-plus dancers each week, demonstrates that tending to his own fire gave the opportunity for many to flourish within the same space as teachers, students and fellow dancemakers.

4. Keep dancing, regardless of your age. Indeed, still in 2019 we continue to ask questions about dancing into our 50s, 60s and beyond. Frank modeled this for so many dancers in the Bay Area. Age was never the main factor in his love of performing and taking class; as long as the interest and curiosity were there for the work, he showed up for it. He embodied the absolute beauty, power and purpose of the older dancer onstage.

5. Expand beyond the studio. Over 61 years, the studio Frank and Victor founded became a community center, a landing place, a refuge, an incubator, a performance space and a home for dance. I believe Frank's legacy encourages those of us in the field to ask: How can your studio grow? How can your studio serve the community? How can rigor and kindness be practiced together?

May Frank's work in the field be carried forward and be long-lasting. May we all be inspired by Frank Shawl to lead with integrity, kindness and love.

Read more about Frank's life here.

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