Go Deeper

Getting To Know Shavon

Posted June 16th, 2010

There are some people who make friends wherever they go, and I get the sense that Shavon Norris, one of the eight choreographers presenting new work in the upcoming Live Arts show 8 (eight choreographers / eight new works), is one of them. As soon as she walks into La Citadelle, the little café at 16th and Pine where she suggested we meet, the owner spies her and whisks over to give her a hug. They chat for a moment, her smile almost as big as her dangling pink earrings. For someone who just came from a full workday and is heading to an evening of rehearsal, she has an awful lot of energy.

Shavon has been on the move since she was kid growing up in the Bronx. All the children in her family—quite a flock, thanks to her great-grandmother’s ten children—grew up dancing. Shavon had an uncle who was a passionate dancer and dance teacher, so “it was almost like the family business,” she says.

Uncle Timmy, as she and her cousins knew him, was Shavon’s mother’s best friend and a big part of her life. When he died from AIDS complications when Shavon was 14, the joy she found in dance was shattered. “I was heartbroken,” she says. She didn’t dance again until college, when she was moved by a performance of Bill T. JonesStill/Here, a piece about people with terminal illnesses. “That stayed with me for a long time,” she says. “It was like a black hole inside me started to fill up.”

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Shavon had set out for Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York as a biology major and pre-med hopeful. On paper, at least. “I didn’t really have options . . . I come from a single parent home, and when you went to college, you went to earn an income,” she says. Shavon also double-minored in English and math—proof that when she calls herself a “recovering overachiever,” she’s not making things up. When Still/Here inspired her to get back in the studio, she enrolled in dance classes at school. But even when she decided against pursuing medicine after all, dance didn’t stand out as a career path.

After graduating, Shavon worked as a legal assistant on Wall Street (a stint she delicately calls “informative”) and as a resident director and academic counselor at her alma mater, Manhattanville. She wasn’t sure where to go next, but she did know she was unhappy. The Peace Corps was starting to seem like the best option.

“Then the 9/11 attacks happened,” she says. “It rocked me . . . it shook me from the inside out.” Watching walls and lives crumble made Shavon want to live her life differently. “I made living, and happiness, my priorities. I wanted to be a dancer.”

She applied for several dance MFA programs and went on to enroll at Temple. Now, five years after earning her master’s, Shavon is both a dancer and an educator. By day she teaches dance and movement to kindergarten through 5th grade classes at Independence Charter School in Center City (Click here for blog coverage with a sneak peek into Shavon’s classroom!)

Shavon is also one of Philly’s most exciting up-an-coming choreographers, with a vision and process that reflect her inquisitive personality.

Shavon often explains that her dancemaking is inspired by the tradition of testifying that she discovered growing up in an African-American Baptist church. Testifying can take many forms, but the element Shavon always held onto was the link she felt to strangers when they spoke about the divine in their lives. “Just because they shared something, a secret thing, I was instantly connected to them, even if I didn’t even know them,” she says.

When Shavon starts creating a piece, she has her dancers share their own testimonies. She films each dancer as she asks questions or provides words for reflection. Then, the group moves to the dance studio, and Shavon plays back the audio footage of each dancer’s own voice. The dancers respond physically, exploring movements and becoming the first witnesses to their stories. Sometimes the process is deeply emotional. Shavon relishes the sneak peek—”I’m a little nosy. I get to be a voyeur. But what I’m really looking for is connection.”

The second ingredient in Shavon’s vision ties to her interest in biology. “When my uncle died, I knew it was something physical that happened to me. I felt it inside . . . my body shifted.” She says the human body is full of information that flows in all directions; our bodies affect our lives and vice versa.

She points out my straight, straw-colored hair, and then her own shiny black ‘do. “This is in our DNA,” she says. “It’s in our bodies, and just think how it changes how we experience things, how people react to us . . . what stories we live.” And it goes both ways—our stories also become embedded in our skin and bones. Shavon tells me that I may be 22, but the 12-year-old, and the 5-year-old, and the 3-year-old me are still alive. “It doesn’t go away. It stays in you,” she says.

Shavon has recently taken up painting—she’s into huge and tiny canvasses, but nothing in between. She’s a closet sci-fi geek, gushing about Octavia Butler‘s novels and her Twilight Zone marathons as a child. And in the future, she’d like to work with and teach people in nontraditional settings, like in a retirement community or a homeless shelter. Shavon says there are too few hours in the day to do everything, but she doesn’t seem rattled by that. “I’m trying to honor time,” she says, “and make peace with it.” In the studio, at the front of a classroom, behind her video camera, it doesn’t matter—the clock, like so much in Shavon’s busy collage of a life, is not a roadblock but a mystery begging to be solved.

–Mara Miller

Photos by Josh McIlvain and Lindsay Browning