Shari Caldwell: Reaching for the Open Sky

Shari Caldwell lives, learns, and teaches dance

Shari Caldwell. Photo courtesy of the artist.


By Hank Hoffman

For Shari Caldwell, dance is more than an art form she practices and teaches. It is the way she experiences the world.

“I’m so immersed in dancing that it is the way I do things,” Caldwell says. “I go to the bus stop like I’m dancing. It is me and I am it.”

Caldwell is founder and director of the Caldwell Dance Center in New Haven. With a teaching staff that includes Judie Clark, Ronald McCoy, Sondra Day-Fields, Jazmi Zanders, Darriah Woodard, and Caldwell’s daughter, Shayla, the school offers classes in ballet, jazz, modern dance, traditional African dance, and gestures of praise.

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Caldwell worked as a solo dancer with musical groups and also as a troupe member with companies of her own and groups like Paul Hall Contemporary Dance. She performed ballet, modern dance, jazz dance, and church-oriented gestures of praise. Starting in the late 1990s, Caldwell immersed herself not just in the study of traditional African dance but also in the experience of African cultures. During that time, she hosted members of the Guinean dance companies Les Ballets Africains and Les Merveilles D’Afrique in her home (and was married for a time to the Guinean expatriate drummer and dancer Yamoussa Camara).

“I’ve spent the last 10 or 15 years with folks who were born on the continent of Africa, sharing with me their traditional music, dances, culture, and customs and I’ve embraced it thoroughly,” says Caldwell.

Sharing her home, Caldwell learned dance from Yamoussa Camara, Aly Tatchol Camara and Abdoulaye Fylla, and other native Africans. More than that, she experienced a different way of living in which art is central to everyday life rather than a separate sphere of experience.

“Dance is so expressive. You can really have a conversation with dance. A dancer can dance a conversation with another dancer. A dancer can speak to an audience and the audience responds — every time you hear an ‘Ah!’ or hear an ‘Ohh!’ (and clapping) when folks outwardly begin to express (their responses to the dance),” Caldwell says.

That a conversation is taking place isn’t always recognized because “somebody is saying something to you without the use of their voices but instead substituting their bodies,” she explains.

I ask Caldwell if she thinks of dance as different expressive languages.

“They are, they always have been,” she responds. “Music is the same way. It speaks to you. All styles of dance — not just the ones I’ve embraced. Ballet is ballet because it’s telling a story without the use of words.”

Caldwell’s study of dance began at the Bowen-Peters School of Dance under the tutelage of her mentor, Dr. Angela Bowen, and Bowen’s husband, Kenneth Ivan Peters. She speaks of her own dance school as “a branch of the Bowen-Peters School” because “some of the best memories of my life are being inside (the Bowen-Peters dance studio) when we were coming from just being a piece of clay into being artists.

“Bowen-Peters is the shoulders we stand on. I teach kids that it is important to remember that someone sacrificed for you, that when you go forward, you go carrying the reputation of the people who did what they needed to do so you can be whoever you are,” says Caldwell.

“We’re not about competition here. It’s about proper study. We want kids to know how to walk it, talk it, dance it,” says Caldwell. “Just to stand in front of a group of kids and ask them to mimic what you do — anybody could do that.”

What is key, says Caldwell, is to teach students the techniques and origins of any given form of dance.

Caldwell’s pedagogical approach to dance is informed by her almost 20 years of teaching (1989-2007) at the Betsy Ross School, an arts magnet middle school in New Haven. Caldwell says she “went from being a strict dance teacher to being nurturing” because when her students came to class, “they came with so much baggage that dance wasn’t primary.” Before she could reach them as a teacher, she needed to reach their hearts. It is a philosophy that also guides her approach to teaching at her dance center.

“As a young dancer, I really believed it was about me, but I didn’t like fighting for positions. Now, at 51, I believe I didn’t want the joy part of it taken away from me,” Caldwell reflects.

She remained rooted in New Haven rather than aggressively pursuing opportunities in New York City because she feared her dance career would devolve into “a cat-scratching thing. That wasn’t what it was for me. It doesn’t feel like that in my spirit.

“I feel close to God dancing,” Caldwell, a devout Christian, says.

“I know what I believed it to be for me when I was a young person was not what I was supposed to be. It wasn’t supposed to be me being well-known and traveling all over the world. It was about me trying to encourage and boost some young folks where they need to go,” says Caldwell.

As an “awesome example,” Caldwell cites her 23-year-old daughter Shayla who teaches at the Caldwell Dance Center and is a professional dancer with Evidence, a Brooklyn-based dance company directed by Ronald K. Brown.

Perhaps Caldwell’s greatest challenge as a dance instructor with young people is helping them over the initial hurdle of breaking habits of inactivity.

She says, “My classes will probably run the kids away or attract them with a hunger that will allow them to continue.

“Kids are so comfortable (being) laid back that they don’t easily embrace a strenuous activity. Before we can even help them, we have to help them understand this is something they’re going to enjoy, that they’ll be able to do,” explains Caldwell.

Some students struggle with an internalized defeatism. Caldwell understands what they are experiencing. She realizes that some former students who don’t return have given in to the fear that they can’t do it.

Caldwell is frank: It is difficult “to make the kinds of changes from a natural instrument to an extraordinarily capable instrument of dance.” But she strives to motivate her students to overcome their fears and reticence because the rewards are so worthwhile — “because your body literally changes in every way,” she says. “Your mind develops. When you’re at the peak of your study and your instrument is really fine, you feel like you are a super-person. Because things really are good. They feel good, they’re easy.”

It isn’t just the students overcoming internalized hurdles who are rewarded. Caldwell describes her commitment to teaching as a “win-win situation” — her reward is “making serious differences in young people’s lives and the way they see themselves.”

“I know I’m blessed. I don’t have to be afraid of what’s coming because God did this and He’s saying, ‘Shari, this is what you’re supposed to do. Now go on and do it and do it without fear.’ There’s a purpose bigger than all of us and we all have a place in that purpose and mine is here,” says Caldwell.

The most important lesson to impart to her students, Caldwell says, is the need “to be truthful to themselves. When you say, ‘I want to make a commitment to this thing called dance,’ that you are not going to allow every other opportunity to take priority over that commitment, that you are going to be welcoming of the discomfort and sometimes literal pain you have to go through to transform yourself into a dancer.

“You have to love it. You have to develop — if you don’t already have it — a serious passion or it will beat you up,” declares Caldwell. “Either you’re going to conquer it or it will conquer you.”

Caldwell’s earliest dance memories date to her childhood in New Haven’s Brookside housing project. Dee Dee Handy, the older sister of one of Caldwell’s friends, had entered the Miss Tan America beauty contest. For the talent part of the competition, Handy recruited her younger sister, Caldwell, and another girl to dance along with her.

“We danced and she won or won second place. But I felt that little dance! I started doing my little thing — ‘Oh, this is good!’ We were successful and she was so proud of us and I felt, ‘Oh boy!’” recalls Caldwell.

Handy told Caldwell’s parents about the Bowen-Peters dance school where Handy and her sister were already students.

“I saw a recital and next year I really needed to go,” remembers Caldwell. “My mom was really humble and quiet, to herself, but she was no slouch. She was really supportive of the youth.”

Caldwell’s enrollment at Bowen-Peters began a lifetime in dance interrupted only by a three-year stretch in the 1980s working as a typist at Metro North Railroad headquarters in New York City and the seven months she was off her feet when pregnant with Shayla.

When she started at Bowen-Peters, Caldwell studied ballet and jazz dance and “at the time what we called ‘primitive’ dance.” So-called “primitive” dance was actually diaspora African dance styles from the Caribbean and North, South, and Central America. Caldwell was around 11 years old when she embraced “primitive” dance, “looking for connections to lineage, ancestry, and the origins of a people.”

“What touched me the most was that there was an attempt to deny me that as a young dancer. The fact that the name was ‘primitive’ meant that it didn’t have an origin, didn’t have a place where we could say, ‘This comes from here,’” says Caldwell.

The term ‘primitive’ also concealed that the richness of the various styles of movement and dance of the African diaspora weren’t the product of one culture but of many cultures and countries on the continent of Africa.

“The fact that somebody tried to tell me I couldn’t have it was why I wanted it. And I still want it and feel like I still don’t have it. I tell my kids I’m going to be a student forever,” exults Caldwell.

But while being an “eternal student” can have connotations of failure, that’s not at all how Caldwell sees it. The language she uses to explain her quest for cultural enrichment itself evokes a dance.

“There’s not a roof, there’s not a ceiling,” she says. “There’s just open sky and you just keep on learning. It’s about understanding it’s an infinite situation and you want to keep on reaching because it can always become something.”

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