Dancers are often high achievers, but Shawn Roberts is something else entirely. Former School and Education Director of Spectrum Dance Theater, current director of Seattle Theater Group’s Dance for PD® (Parkinson’s), Dance with Life, and AileyCamp programs, certified life coach, graduate student, mom and grandmother, Roberts’ resume is chock full. But listing off positions doesn’t quite capture how influential Roberts has been, touching thousands of lives through dance education in the Seattle area. Nor does it capture her warmth, vitality, and thoughtfulness. With her quick smile and effusive storytelling, you know right away that she has the kind of contagious enthusiasm that marks the very best of educators.
Movement has been integral to Roberts as long as she can remember. “I grew up dancing. We were always dancing. I grew up in Central Seattle, we were always dancing in our neighborhood. It didn’t occur to me that I could even study dance.”
Her first formal dance training came by way of the Seattle Imperials Drum Corps and Color Guard, here in Seattle in the 1970s. When Roberts joined around age 13 (check her out in this 1979 Imperials performance), the Imperials had recently hired Stanley Knaub, a choreographer who incorporated jazz, ballet, and modern into the color guard repertoire—one of the first to do so. With the Imperials, Roberts traveled to show and compete all over the country. “We rehearsed 7:00 to 7:00, seven days a week, especially right before a tour, so I really learned dance, discipline, and focus. We had dance classes everyday with Stanley, ballet, modern, and jazz. And when I decided I wanted to move on from there I was probably about 16 or 17 and I just started studying at every studio in Seattle.”
The one where she felt most at home was always Spectrum Dance Theater, at the time under the directorship of Dale Merrill. She took class every chance she could get and eventually built a side business doing corporate retreats and movement workshops for fortune 500 companies. But it wasn’t until her early 30’s when she started working with kids—helping out in her young daughter’s dance class at Spectrum. One thing led to another, and Roberts was soon teaching young children five days a week. In this she had found a calling. “I knew what dance could do for a child—how it brought forth the best in me… It was teaching friendship, it was teaching cooperation, it was teaching self-discipline, listening, and really feeling great about themselves.”
Roberts’ teaching drew a huge following, and Donald Byrd recognized something special when he assumed leadership of Spectrum in 2002. Previously Spectrum’s dance school had been mostly recreational, but Byrd gave Roberts the reins to develop the program, both in-house and through outreach to schools. Over the next 14 years, Roberts built the lauded curriculum-based program that exists today. Empowering students has always been at the forefront of Roberts’ pedagogy, with classes serving students from the ages of walking through seniors. “The whole thing about Spectrum is that no matter who you are and what your background is, there is a place for you. No matter what your facility is, if you have the desire to dance you should have that right. And that was my belief and mission.”
It was through her work at Spectrum, and this mission, that she connected to another life-calling. Seattle Theatre Group approached Roberts about establishing a Seattle branch of Dance For PD® (Dance for Parkinson’s), a world-wide program developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group in 2001. Initially she only planned to run the program, but after completing the training, the call to teach was too strong. “I just loved it so much—loved every bit of what I saw, the impact that it had on the students, the people with Parkinson’s who took it. I loved it so much that I went on to get my certification in teaching Dance for PD®, which was one of the first certifications in the country outside of the founding directors at Mark Morris Dance Group. And when I retired [from Spectrum] my plan was to continue to build the Dance for PD® program in Seattle and I ended up doing that and more.”
Movement is a powerful tool for people who have Parkinson’s, a disease that affects the nervous and motor systems of the body. Through the adaptive design of the method, dance becomes not only a practical tool—for example, a dancer having difficulty getting out of a chair may choreograph themselves out—but also a method for connecting with their physical selves and accessing joy at a time when it is most needed. Roberts personally witnesses the transformation in every class. “[The dancers] come in very much a part of what they’re dealing with on an everyday basis. And then during class, through the movement, you just see this light that begins to shine through their movement and who they are…They are the movement. They are their light. They are their joy. How they carry themselves and how they move is just so different when they come out.”
Roberts also runs STG’s Dance with Life program, an offshoot of Dance for PD®, that goes directly into assisted living and nursing homes. “I think we were in our second year of Dance for PD® and we realized that there were people who couldn’t get to our classes,” Roberts recalls. The Dance with Life program is for people with Parkinson’s or any other physical or neurological challenge, including people in memory care. The program has been on hold for Covid safety, but hopes to continue soon.
Sitting at the cross-section of all her skills, Roberts is also in her sixth year directing the Seattle branch of AileyCamp brought to the Puget Sound area by Seattle Theatre Group. The national program for middle school-aged youth, designed by the incomparable Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is so much more than just a dance camp. “It is a personal development camp first and foremost. Dance classes are one of the vehicles, but the students also take personal development classes, writing, and art classes. The personal development classes really go right in on lifting self-esteem, teaching critical thinking skills, decision making, and leadership skills to help students be the very best version of themselves,” Roberts says.
AileyCamp is open to students who have no previous dance experience, and when I marvel about what it must take to try dancing at such a socially tender age, Roberts assures me that every student finds the bravery to show up. “This is where our greatness is, when we as human beings are able to go from being in a place of fear and I can’t do this to finding that power within us and just moving forward and doing what we’re afraid of doing. Our AileyCampers are phenomenal beings. You look at their art work, you look at their movement, you look at their accomplishments during camp…They’re absolutely going to change the world.”
This summer is STG AileyCamp’s second year in an online format. Last year Roberts felt it was important to continue Seattle’s branch of the program, and pivoted online to great success. “My concern when transitioning was how were we going to really get that energy, break through that wall, that Zoom wall, and really have them feel our staff’s virtual arms around them?” She credits the resourcefulness of the instructors, who get up close to the screen, check in with the students, give them positive uplifting encouragement, and find creative ways to keep students engaged. Over the past year Roberts has continued monthly online meetups with alums of the program, teaching goal-setting, decision making, leadership, doing self-esteem exercises, and integrating them into other STG programming like DANCE This.
In addition, Roberts is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Antioch University. But this isn’t because Roberts anticipates switching careers. “I will always be involved in dance in some way. And I’ve also had this inner urge to really support healing from the inside out as well. It’s just more. It’s just more of the work that I love to do.”
This new degree will further support her in helping people live the life they envision and will work alongside her current certification in transformational life coaching, for which she already sees clients. When I ask if she ever sleeps she says she does, and adds “If I wasn’t doing what my heart loves, it would probably feel very difficult… like oh my gosh how can I get up this morning. And it really doesn’t. It feels like this is what I’m here to do and it’s my work. How am I going to serve today? Because it really is about serving.”
It is very inspiring to see how dance has played out, and continues to play out, over the course of a career. During the interview I admit I got misty eyed a few times, because Roberts spoke truth to what so many dancers know in their hearts: that dance, when used as a tool for good, changes lives. She reminded me of all the very best things about dance—its power to make us the best people we can be, in tune with ourselves and with our communities. For Roberts, it’s been a journey informed by a lifelong love of movement and believing in the capacity of the self.
“I have this mission that dance is a vehicle for healing. It just is. It’s a vehicle for lifting the quality of life. And once I really committed myself and stood in that personal mission, opportunities began to open up. I just had to say yes to them. Did they seem bigger than me?…YES. And what I had to do was realize that they were here for a reason. I had to get out of my own way and do the work that I needed to do, be open to learning and growing, as I was being of service, and now I look at the breadth of work I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of and still am a part of. I feel very grateful for that and appreciative that I’ve had the opportunities to give in this way.”