Shelbia Djelassi Spence
Edited by: 
Raheida Khalique

Q: How did you begin dancing?

My mother was a dancer who opened her studio when I was six weeks old. There was a choice to dance, but not really. I danced because it was my family and I grew up in the dance studio. I started with ballet, jazz, tap, and modern dances.

Q: What was it like having your mom as your dance teacher?

This was a disadvantage because it’s a situation where you feel you are at a different position than anyone else. Kids didn't like you because you were the dance teacher's daughter. Dancing for your mom is similar to working for the group you are in to keep up but sometimes you don’t try as hard. I messed around even though ballet was not great.

Q: What has dance taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?

I work better on a stage and away from people. There is always a light and something that will make you continue when you don't think you can. Dance has also taught me discipline.

Q: Has dance helped you overcome any hardships in your life?

Yes. In a weird way, I fight with dance but it is also something that gets me through the challenges. Dance has a way of pulling me back without knowing.

Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside of dance that influence and inspire your artistry?

Although teaching is very hard, I love to teach kids by subbing in elementary schools. I struggled in school because I wasn't the best student and I think dance helps the kids that struggle. I think I became a better and more patient dance teacher by teaching kids in school.

Q: How can dance be a platform for social justice issues?

Dance is an expression of emotion. The only way I could ever express myself is onstage because I wasn’t afraid there. You can say more on stage than you ever would when you are on a normal level, like a human.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as an educator and assistant director? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction)

As a teacher, Zoom classes are not what I was made for. There is no interaction with kids and I hate it. My kids relate to me and I relate to them, so I almost refused to teach on Zoom. After the first week, my two online classes were the favorite in all three Mass Motion Studios. I held a seniors only candlelight contemporary on a Wednesday which can become emotional. One of my students texted me saying she is thankful the class helps her be emotional during this time. She feels that she can express herself freely during the dance which involves sitting down and allowing each student to express themselves through movement.

Q: What is a message you would like to say to health workers on the front lines if you could?

You are gods. People like you help us wake up everyday and keep going. Our life is nothing compared to what you have to do right now. Thank you.

Q: What does a home routine look like for you?

I have a five year old and a one and a half year old. Preparing for a Zoom class requires an all day long preparation. I have to be able to teach on Zoom even though it is more stressful. The choreography can’t be shown, but needs to be taught from inside out. Then, I have to relay the teaching to my kids to bring them up to date which can make things stressful and busy. It is nice being at home but I really miss my students. My son argues with me sometimes that I am not his teacher and expresses how much he misses school. He is usually loud and wild but now he is even more wild and tries to rebel at home. There are definitely good days and bad days.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic?

The dance community is amazing. Ryan Warren was holding kid’s classes on Dance Teacher Network, so I messaged him for his material which he sent to me for free. This included everything from warm ups to combos. Many people also hold free online classes at their house. Everyone’s willingness to support each other helps dancers make a community online. On a normal day people say they will help one another, whether it is cutting music or something else. Now, they are on a whole new level of helping one another.

Q: How are your students reacting to this change?

Younger ones - they deal with the change and enjoy chatting on Zoom whereas seniors are very close to one another. Right now, we are dealing with how to do some kind of recital. I love my students but I love them even more now. During our previous Zoom meeting, I could tell my students were emotional because they really felt the effects of change. You know what a dance family is. We are with them everyday. You have no idea how important they are or how much the kids really love each other and connect with the faculty until you go through something like this. We have been considering a virtual recital since we usually have a senior dance where we send the seniors off. One option could be to hold the seniors' recitals in replace of the Nutcracker for the winter, but it's hard when so many of them move away.

Q: What is one moment in Zoom dance class that touched you and you remember?

The candle light contemporary dance touches me the most. Watching two of my students put themselves in the position of teaching and challenge themselves with choreography is indescribable. The dance takes place in my basement from 9:00-10:00 pm on Wednesdays with about 15 students. I turn off the lights and set up candles as well. Trying to get emotion out of teenagers is hard but I try to teach them to connect to choreography and speak through their dancing. The dance is made to be done in a bedroom and the students enjoy learning at night, to dance in a small space with gestures and emotional music.

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