Stepping into your purpose: A chat with Sheila Barker

“Gah, gah, reach–ball change. Now, one-two-three hundred turns!” If you haven’t already guessed, today we’re featuring the woman, the myth, the legend: the one-and-only Sheila Barker. Whether she’s teaching her weekly drop-in jazz classes, mentoring training program students, hosting classes for BDC’s annual Dance Teacher Workshop, leading her sought-after Summer Workshop, or just greeting everyone (by name!) as she roams the halls of BDC, Sheila seems to inspire every dancer she meets. 

“I never knew this until much later in my life,” recalls Sheila, “but my mother actually wanted to be a dancer herself.” Immigrants from Barbados, her mother’s religious family didn’t allow women to dance or play sports. But when raising her own family in Harlem, New York, her mother gave her children (including Sheila, her brother, and sister)  the freedom to explore their own artistic interests. 

“I grew up going to Harlem School of the Arts, which was really close to where we lived,” says Sheila. Along with her academic classes, Sheila also studied art, piano, violin, dance, and music theory. “It’s interesting how much teachers affect your life,” Sheila explains. “I grew very uninspired with dance. I did the work and did it well, but still didn’t feel like I was good enough. I wasn’t being stimulated or challenged…So, I turned to music.” Sheila excelled in the violin and learned to understand music from the inside out. She was particularly drawn to the energy, improvisation, and excitement of jazz music. “I was very good…but I never practiced much. The drive just wasn’t there. Something was missing,” she admits.  It wasn’t until Sheila took a dance class from Dianne McIntyre that it all started to click and turned her life around. “Dianne was a modern teacher (and founder of the company Sounds in Motion) who incorporated improvisation into her choreography,” remembers Sheila. Dance became jazz music made physical, and for Sheila, that was everything. Suddenly, dance was all she wanted to do. “I didn’t have great turnout…but I had enough. I didn’t have great flexibility…but I had enough,” admits Sheila. “What I did have was strength, focus, determination, and lots and lots of heart.”

Sheila pursued her dance studies at City College and trained in jazz, tap, Limón, and Graham technique. “There was something about jazz,” she says with a smile. “That put another spark in my love for dance. The freedom and musicality combined with the technique from my modern and ballet classes. It was so powerful, so truthful.” Sheila graduated a semester early with Magna Cum Laude honors.  “I truly believe that if you train smart, you will also excel in school,” she explains. “When you have a passion for your craft, you value discipline, time management, and setting goals. You make it happen.”

But let’s rewind a little bit. Throughout both high school and college, Sheila continued her training with Dianne McIntyre and eventually became a teaching assistant–leading warm-up at the front of the room of all of the adult Horton classes taught by Bernadine Jennings. “I remember I was 16 years old and I got a call from Bernadine saying, ‘We’re going on tour and I need you to sub my classes for the two months I’m gone.’” While Sheila was initially scared out of her mind, she realized she had all the tools to make it happen. “I was thrilled to have the responsibility,” she remembers, “so I spent a lot of time preparing all of my classes. I also felt comfortable working with the live accompanist because of my music background. At the end of the first class, everyone applauded! That was the beginning of so much for me and I didn’t even know it then.”

That was Sheila’s first segue into teaching; but at 16, she still had a lot to learn. So she continued training after college with the legendary Frank Hatchett at Jo Jo’s Dance Factory and eventually became his assistant. “Frank’s class was nothing like Dianne’s, but also exactly like Dianne’s,” Sheila tries to explain. “It was all about soul, spirit, and honesty. He pushed and encouraged you to break out of any confinements and learn how your instrument could speak your truth. Dianne McIntyre and Frank Hatchett are the two major heartfelt forces of my entire dancing artistic career. I owe these two for all of my skills and can’t praise or thank them enough.”

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” Sheila emphasizes. “I wanted to perform.” And Frank’s class fostered that.  He encouraged his dancers to take class in every possible style–ballet, tap, jazz, musical theater, modern…everything!  And Sheila’s peers in class were professional working dancers in the industry. “I would look to them for advice and they were incredibly supportive. Class was different than it is today. Every group would go out on the floor to out dance the group before them. We would cheer loud for each other.We were all there to learn and grow.” Sheila performed on Broadway and in music videos, industrials, and soap operas. Richard Ellner, who used to take Sheila’s classes when she subbed for Frank Hatchett, offered Sheila her own teaching slot at Broadway Dance Center…She couldn’t refuse. “I could teach on Sundays and still focus on my own training and performing. It was a way for me to earn money between gigs.”  But with high demand for her classes, Sheila kept adding to her schedule. “I remember Richard offering me another teaching slot and a choice of times to choose from. I chose the 4:30 time slot and he looked at me like I was crazy,” she recalls. “And now, it’s one of the most coveted time slots at BDC!”

Eventually, Sheila hung up her hat on performing. “It’s interesting how God works,” Sheila wonders. After a severe car accident, Sheila turned to focus solely on teaching. “I was already moving toward this transition, and then it kind of just happened.” But this was not a sad decision for Sheila. In fact, it propelled her even more into owning her purpose. “I love teaching and choreographing,” she says. “I enjoy doing the work and seeing the results–when I share all that I’ve learned from my mentors with younger dancers and I see them make a breakthrough.”  

Still, teaching is not an easy job. “It’s a big responsibility,” Sheila admits. “You constantly have to keep learning and sharing and giving.  But it’s so important for us teachers to keep this going–To train dancers to be smart, healthy, brave, vulnerable, and strong.” And it’s a personal journey as well. “Many students will come and go, but I have to nurture them, let them fall, pick them up, and then let them fly. That’s my purpose.”

If you can’t get enough of Sheila (and let’s be honest, none of us can!), there’s still room to sign up for the Summer Intensive and the Dance Teacher Workshop here at Broadway Dance Center. “I absolutely love teaching these teachers,” Sheila gushes. “They’re coming to get more information and to rejuvenate their energy to go back and continue inspiring their own students. And that, in itself, inspires me.”

Sheila is one of those teachers that embodies the mission of Broadway Dance Center. “By living my truth, I inspire and empower my students to do the same,” she explains. “I’m not just teaching people how to dance,” Sheila says, serious now. “Kids matter. Let’s help them to love themselves, to not hide from their fears, to fall down and stand back up, to be alive in this world. Art and life are so connected. Let’s all keep learning, stay present, and live in our truth…” And maybe also keep working to hit those one-two-three hundred turns!

Al Blackstone’s “Freddie Falls in Love” comes to The Joyce

Broadway Dance Center has always been Al Blackstone’s home away from home. His teachers, mentors, and experience as a student helped shape him into the educator he is today. Since his first class in 2011 with just a few students, Al now packs the room no matter when he’s teaching. Beyond that, his courage to share his talent, vulnerability, charm, and lovable goofiness has created an undeniable ripple effect throughout the industry, challenging our preconceived notions about what ‘musical theater’ means, and how we can cultivate the energy of a dance class. Being a teacher or performer doesn’t mean masking who you are to portray someone or something else–quite the opposite, actually. It requires tapping even deeper into who you are in order to create a more meaningful connection with others, whether it’s your audience, dance partner, students, or fellow peers in class.

Belgian Ballet Dancer to Gay Icon: A closer look at BDC’s Salim “Slam” Gauwloos

It’s Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. New York City–especially Broadway Dance Center–is celebrating love loud and proud by walking in the Pride March again and hosting special Pride March fundraiser classes. Amidst all this joy, pride, and celebration, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come (and also how far we still have to go) in the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights and respect.  

The arts reflect life, and the dance world has often ignited social change (Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey are but two choreographic changemakers that come to mind). It’s not quite a surprise, then, to know that the dance community had a huge influence on making “gay” visible, accepted, and mainstream.

Musical theatre masterclass. Photo courtesy of So Danca

BDC gears up for annual Musical Theater Weekend Intensive

Broadway Dance Center is thrilled to once again host its annual Musical Theater Weekend Intensive on June 15 and 16. This incredible two-day workshop features closed classes, professional seminars, mock auditions and exclusive panels for the aspiring Broadway performer. 

Students (advanced dancers ages 14-29) will learn choreography from some of Broadway’s current musical hits, the art of crafting a resume, singing and acting techniques to ace any casting, how to land an agent, and what it takes to stand out at auditions. The weekend will culminate with a mock audition where students will get individualized feedback from industry professionals.

BDC Pride March

BDC in the 50th Annual New York City Pride March

From its founding, Broadway Dance Center (BDC) has sought to act as a safe space for anyone and everyone to express themselves just as they are, through the art of dance, shares BDC Public Relations Director April Cook. In this way, its goals align with those of the New York City Pride March — in working toward a world in which everyone can feel accepted and supported for who they are. For the fourth consecutive year, members of the BDC community will participate in the March under BDC’s name this June 30.

Hannah Molloy. Photo by Michael Mandolfo.

Meet the recipients of BDC’s Richard Ellner Scholarships 

If you don’t know the name “Richard Ellner”, you should. He is the man behind Broadway Dance Center and the reason why we’re able to enjoy dozens of fun classes with working choreographers and well-known teachers each week. Ellner was a life-long lover of the performing arts, although he didn’t take a dance class himself until the age of 52! He had visions of a home for dance in the heart of NYC, where dancers could receive diversified training from the best in the business, all under one roof. So, 35 years ago, in 1984, Ellner founded BDC. 

To honor Ellner’s legacy and contribution to the dance community, BDC has announced recipients of the Richard Ellner Scholarships, awarded to three students of BDC’s Professional Semester Program. The generous Scholarships will cover half and full tuition costs for these dancers. Here, get to know the scholarship recipients and why they’re so thrilled to be training at BDC. 

Spangles Dance Company.

BDC celebrates 35 years, ’80s style

Broadway Dance Center is celebrating its 35thanniversary this May! Since 1984, the studio, a staple in NYC, has offered a wide range of open classes and provided programs for dancers of all ages and levels. 

To celebrate, BDC has planned a full fun week of activities. You don’t want to miss out on these exciting sales, raffles and events! 

dancers principles for life

Beyond the studio: 3 dance principles that apply to life

As dancers, we have acquired a certain skill set that is often overlooked outside of the dance studio. Principles like balance, coordination and flexibility seem to come with the territory, but just like everything else, they take practice.

While not everyone identifies as a dancer, these elements of dance can apply to everyone. No matter how much or how little dance experience one may have, these principles are universal and may help you the next time you find yourself at a crossroads, in a rut or needing to make a major life decision.  

Earth Day.

Earth Day: You can make a difference!

The past five years have been the warmest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Additionally, there are currently 150 million metric tons of plastic waste in the oceans that affect 700 species, with an additional eight million metric tons being added to the ocean every year, according to the Ocean Conservancy3. The plastic island in the ocean is real.

Young people and students are leading the charge to combat climate change and make the tough decisions that reduce negative human impact on the environment. Just this past March, an estimated 1.4 million students from 123 countries walked out of school and stormed the streets to demand action from global leaders1,2. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg had strong words for world leaders at the UN Summit on Climate Change.