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Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble Empowers Teens to Grow Into Their Own Skins

Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.


For La Riña (The Dispute), from the 2018–19 season, choreographer Rogelio Lopez asked the dancers to consider the experience of "inferiority" or "superiority" within an intimate relationship. The students magnified the process with conversations about bullying at school and wider-spread aggression toward women. (The piece was aptly made during the Kavanaugh hearings.)

"It started out with two dancers staring at each other menacingly. One hit the other and pushed her to the ground," says dancer Eláh Sordean (age 17). "Throughout the piece different people were lifted and thrown around. At the end, roles were reversed, and the other dancer did the pushing."

Making La Riña was one thing, but performing it (with rigor) was another—revealing to the dancers the scope and impact of their own emotions. "It really showed me how violence is a cycle," Sordean says. Odessa Newman (age 18) felt a mixture of satisfaction and alarm from just how heavily the piece landed. "The emotions were real in our bodies," she says. "I felt things I didn't know I could feel while 'acting.'"

Mo Miner directs SAYE, teaches its modern classes, selects each season's choreographers and makes work with the group. She guides the teens to "work hard, think critically, support one another, ask thoughtful questions, make decisions and treat their teachers/choreographers with respect," she says. She models professional behavior, and her standards are passed from leading veteran members to newcomers.

As for teaching technique, Miner's approach is stout. "I use the same phrase material that I use for my adult advanced classes," she says. "I sprinkle in other components of modern dance training, including improvisation, composition, anatomy, partnering, inversions and floor work, and somatic practices."

The choreographers Miner brings in don't tailor or simplify their processes either. Instead, they treat rehearsals with SAYE like they would with their own companies. "We were trusted with work that people are doing professionally. That's different from other youth performance programs," says Nina Gonzalez Silas (age 21), alumna. The ensemble has worked with world-class choreographers like Miriam Engel of Israel.

Yet, the effect of the ensemble goes deeper. "As much as it is an education in dance, it's also an education in how to build a community," says Eliza Gilligan (age 16). "We learn how to recognize and work with each other's boundaries." Miner fosters an environment where teens can feel safe and powerful in physical contact, and can generate new ideas and versions of themselves. When they have things to say, there is space to come forward. The dancers feel connected to one another and to Miner, even nicknaming her "Mo(m)."

Each cohort grows close as they witness and support one another's virtuosity and imperfection. "Last year I was learning a shoulder roll (I come from ballet), and everyone stopped to offer me helpful tips. We do that a lot," says Sordean. Recalling times when she was making tricky choreography, Gonzalez Silas says: "What I got from it all was a sense that doing weird stuff brings you closer to people. It's helpful to be in a place of vulnerability, not in a place of confidence at all times. We weren't showing off. We were figuring things out together."

Gonzalez Silas now studies at Barnard College, and her academic work is rooted in inquiry that began in SAYE—questions about the body and selfhood. Alumna Lucia Flexer-Marshall (age 20) is studying dance at UC Santa Cruz and says: "It has been a complete sense of continuity and congruency with my SAYE experience, especially with choreographers allowing for dancers' creative input. Some dancers here who come from commercial backgrounds are thrown into the deep end. I didn't feel that way at all."

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