LIHSA Visiting Artist Spotlight: Shireen Dickson

Shireen Dickson is the director of OKRA Dance Company, which presents African and American diasporic dance and world rhythmic forms in schools, libraries, museums and festivals throughout the US.

Shireen’s performance experience spans from a teen National Tap Ensemble member to professional cheerleading for the NBA to Equity, Off-Broadway and ‘experimental’ theater.  She has collaborated with award-winning choreographers and legendary musicians and has performed and taught at the National Black Arts Festival, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, American Dance Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, among numerous others.

LIHSA is proud to welcome Shireen as one of our exceptional Visiting Artists.  Her Ritual Dance program teaches students about the role of dance in expressing the basic questions of human life, helping them identify modern rituals and utilize these elements to create a performance piece.

A ritual is something you do in a regular way that you’ve created meaning for.  Ritual Dances combine improvisational movement, music and ritual for a specific, shared purpose.

How did you first become interested in sharing history and culture though dance?

In college I was a very good tap dancer, but unfamiliar with the techniques of ballet and contemporary modern dance.  I studied with a professor who focused on American dance history and how American enslaved set the tone and rhythm of the modern dance world.  Throughout our education we’re told that in order to be validated, history needs to be written.  Immersing myself in dance history helped validate all the things I grew up around.

Who has ever taken an African dance class?  Hip hop dance?   How many have taken ballet?  Almost everyone.  Everything is a technique unto itself.  Respect your body and respect yourself.  Put aside the stigma of Folk and African dance.

Shireen Dickson

What dancers or musicians first inspired you?

Right out of college, I had the honor to dance with Dianne McIntyre, who is an artistic pioneer of choreography for dance, theatre, television and film and founder of “Sounds in Motion”.  She introduced me to working with live jazz musicians, improvisational styles and tackling themes of African life.

Though my association with Ms. McIntyre, I was fortunate to work with jazz greats, including Max Roach and Olu Dara (also known as rapper Nas’ dad!).

What is your favorite music to dance to?

I love dancing to everything, but House Music brings me incredible joy and freedom.

What about dance makes it an ideal platform to communicate and tell stories?

Dance is the first language, the original non-verbal communication.  These are the gestures that you are born with, the first sound you hear in life is your mother’s heartbeat.  These are the vibrations that your body responds to naturally.

How do you prepare mentally and physically prior to a performance?

I breathe, I just breathe.  I believe that preparation comes before you get to the performance, so it’s important to enjoy the moment, remember where you are and why your there.  Think about what you’re trying to tell the audience and the message you are sending.  Nervous energy is natural, but ultimately your mind should be focused on what you plan to express through your art.

Make connections to things that they already know.  Your life.  What’s relevant to you.

Shireen Dickson

Other than dancing and teaching, what occupies your time?

I read a lot.  Right now I’m reading a very interesting memoir called the “The One You Want To Marry” by Sofie Santos, an inspiring Broadway actor and comedian.

You are involved with the Race and Climate Change Festival.  How can dance help change people’s perspective towards this global issue?

I think it’s two things.  Firstly, understanding how moving together in a community, like dance, inspires trust in that communication.  Dance involves moving in tandem with other people, just like society.  The trust and care within your community becomes a blueprint for wanting to be more involved and what could be more honorable than respecting the environment that houses our community locally.

Secondly, the purpose of Native American pow wow dances are to celebrate and give thanks to the Earth.  Express the connectedness between the earth and spirit.  These traditional European and West African rituals were done barefoot to give dancers a direct connection to the Earth and only done during certain time of the year to celebrate the seasons.  Understanding this gets us more in tune to the way the earth is turning and how we are a part of that constant movement.

Words of wisdom for LIHSA students interested in pursuing a career in the arts?

It is possible to make a great living doing exactly what you love for the rest of your life.  Decide how you want to live, research who is doing what you want to do, figure out how the best examples from their lives work in your life and keep moving forward.


OKRA Dance Company presents a FREE EVENT: “Roots to Rap: Evolutions of American Rhythm” this Saturday, October 23rd at 8:45pm at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  Click here for info and to reserve tickets


Learn More About OKRA Dance Company and the Organizations and Events that Shireen is a part of