“Everybody is able to dance,” says Shireen, the passionate director of Okra Dance Company. “The common denominator is rhythm. This is the connection I want to make for young people – rhythm as a cherished legacy, explored through the medium of dance.”
One of the programs her company brings to schools is called American Dance from Africa to Broadway. “Kids are amazed when I demonstrate that the Applejack dance from the 1940s incorporates a Congolese dance step.”
Shireen also teaches a workshop called American Rhythmic Traditions that introduces young folk to percussive styles of dance, such as Patting Juba and Hambone, soft shoe, tap, swing, and stepping. “As a tap and freestyle dancer, anything poly-rhythmic cross-pollinates what I teach,” she says. “There is an indescribable sense of empowerment when fifth graders in the Bronx can swing like their great-great-grandparents might have done a mile south in Harlem.”
Every year, Shireen manages the community education program for the New York Dance Parade, a huge event in May with some 10,000 dancers of all stripes and styles. She is also a founding member of the Collegium for African Diasporic Dance, based at Duke University.
As a young dancer, Shireen felt marginalized by the dance world, and struggled to figure out where she fit. Now she teaches youngsters to ignore or embrace the margins. As resident choreographer for the Jazz Drama Program, she writes and produces original musicals for youth. “I don’t force kids into a mold,” she says. “Ballet, modern – there is no one ‘right’ way to dance. It’s not about technical expertise. The story has to come through you.”