Photo: Jan La Salle
Danita Shaheen is a professional dancer, choreographer, and teacher who has been involved with Jazz Choreography Enterprises since 2008. Danita is classically trained in Balanchine technique under the direction of former New York City Ballet soloist David Otto and the Capital Ballet Company. She has trained and performed with many companies and in addition to her dance collaborations, she is also the founder and president of the Alternative Arts Association, a multimedia arts organization and 501c3 nonprofit.
Danita will be performing with DoubleTake Dance in JCE’s upcoming New York Jazz Choreography Project showcase on April 28 and 29. We spoke to her to hear more about her experience and find out a little about her upcoming performances.
JCE: You were classically trained in Ballet, but have danced with a number of companies that range genres from Modern to Jazz. How did you come to perform Jazz?
Danita Shaheen: It was actually jazz that got me back into wanting to dance. I quit dancing when I was seven because decided I wanted to be a ninja. I think at the time ballet was just too girly, stuffy, stiff, and disciplined for my rambunctious energy. For some reason I thought karate would work out better for me. Needless to say that didn’t work out. So I went back to dance at a new studio that also offered jazz. I was immediately hooked. It completely reignited my love for movement. I found the outlet, and the complement to my ballet training that I was craving. I was able to be strong and sharp in my movements in a way that I had never felt in ballet. And from that, I found a way to bring a dynamism and energy into my ballet training that wasn’t there before.
JCE: What do you most enjoy about working across disciplines?
DS: Every company, choreographer and genre feeds a different creative aspect of my artistic soul. I have the opportunity to be flirtatious onstage, or be a villain, or be balletic, or vulnerable, or powerful. Each process challenges me in a different way, which can only make me a stronger, more well rounded dancer. I’m so honored to have worked with so many talented people. They push my technique and inspire me to dig deeper as a performer.
JCE: How did being trained in Ballet inform your practice of Jazz dance, and do you find that Jazz choreography gives you room for experimentation within the form?
DS: I felt this energy, release and freedom that I was looking for as a young dancer. Jazz helped me find the textures and intensity that I wanted to express in dance but was missing in my preliminary ballet training. But, I had the foundation of technique to really explore that. I went to a very rigorous ballet school. My Ballet teacher was one of the last dancers to be hand picked by Balanchine to go into the New York City Ballet. I think my understanding of alignment made the transition to Jazz fluid. It wasn’t like starting from scratch; I already had a foundation to understand how to execute the movement. It inspired me to go further. The combination of training (one instructor going through SAB and onto NYCB, and the other instructor working with Hubbard Street) really evolved my perception of dance. And it helped me personalize how I move as an artist. I am forever indebted to the wonderful teachers of Albany Dance Institute and the Capital Ballet Company.
JCE: What excites you most about the world of Jazz dance right now?
DS: I think what excites me most is the cross-pollination and evolution of it as a genre. There are so many types of Jazz dance, and it’s rare to see them all showcased in one setting (which is why JCE is so important and special to the community). It really makes you appreciate the roots of Jazz, as well as its progression. I think that people are really pushing the boundary of what we call “Jazz,” and that’s exciting. It’s not a stagnant art form, it flourishes with each generation.
JCE: How did you get involved with JCE?
DS: I came to be involved with the JCE through Cat Manturuk in the fall of 2008. She saw me in a ballet class and invited me to rehearsal with her company Dance Cat-alyst. Ten years later, Cat is one of my closest friends and one of my favorite people to work for. She has a rich understanding of the Jazz lineage and she excels at showcasing how Jazz has influenced other techniques, especially Hip Hop and Modern. She — like the many other JCE presenters — pays homage to the roots, while highlighting how this form of dance continues to evolve and inspire new choreography. Before Dance Cat-alyst, I was mostly performing modern and contemporary ballet. I was given that opportunity to show my love for Jazz professionally thanks to Cat Manturuk. I am grateful to her and JCE for providing the platform for this to be possible. I wouldn’t be teaching and performing Jazz had it not been for these entities.
JCE: Can you tell us a little about your upcoming performance with DoubleTake Dance in the April JCE showcase?
DS: I can certainly tell you a little, but I don’t want to give too much away. DTD will be performing a piece called “Tremors” in the upcoming JCE showcase. Their work is extremely technical, with precise ensemble work, and acrobatic partnering. It’s very challenging, and really fun. I love working with an all female company that isn’t afraid to highlight the strength and ferocity of its dancers. They don’t shy away from doing difficult lifts because it’s a female ensemble. I really respect that about Ashley Carter and Vanessa Martínez de Baños’s work, and highly encourage everyone to get a ticket to see it.
JCE: Are there any projects you are working on that you’d like to share with our audience?
DS: Besides my upcoming shows with the JCE, I have some performances with Ariel Rivka Dance, which is a ballet influenced contemporary company. I’ve had the honor of performing with them since 2013. We will be performing one of my favorite pieces “Ori” at BAM on April 21st at 2pm. And May 17th-19th will be premiering new works as well as our featured repertoire from last season, “No Words,” for our eleventh season at NYLA. I also just joined the world of social media, so you can follow me at @danitashaheen if you’d like to know what else I’m up to.
Galia Abramson is the External Affairs Associate at Library of America, a nonprofit publishing company, and a Junior Board Member of Jazz Choreography Enterprises. Previously she worked at WNET New York Public Media in Community Relations and Development. Prior to working at WNET, she was Development Operations Coordinator at the Guggenheim Museum. Galia graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from NYU with a major in History.