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!