Choreographer Iquail Shaheed makes it personal

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 17, 2010

Iquail Shaheed is an out African American gay male dancer has a distinguished pedigree: he began is career with Philadanco and won scholarships to Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, The Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, the Paul Taylor School and The Juilliard School. He has subsequently danced with Ailey's company, as well as The Sean Curran Company and Ronald K Brown/Evidence (amongst others).

Recently, though, he has started something more personal - a dance troupe called Dance Iquail! whose mission he sees as addressing personal issues of race, sexuality and other social-cultural issues.

EDGE spoke to the busy dancer/choreographer between gigs in New York and Philly as he prepared a new autobiographical work that will debut at the Painted Bride Arts Center.

"My idea was to get away from dance as purely entertainment," he said when asked why he started the company. "I wanted to focus on more personal work."

Relocating to Philly

The choreographer is also a disciple of Lester Horton training, which is known for its expressionism and athletic precision. "I was teaching Horton at Ailey. I left last year and went to Europe where I did my own thing. But they wanted me back to teach, so I'm very grateful to them. I sold myself out as a teacher in Europe. I was living in Brussels this past summer and I made a lot of connections. So I will be back there teaching as well."

Meantime, he is relocating his company from New York to Philly to be part of the city's expanding dance network and a community presence. "I have seven dancers, all different racial backgrounds, some were my students from the Ailey School, some from University of the Arts here."

For the Painted Bride concert, DIQ will perform three works including Shaheed's "Still With Me" inspired by the life and work of E. Lynne Harris. "He was significant for a lot of us because we read his books and figured out how to come out. I was in high school when a friend of mine passed me his book Invisible Live which dealt with everything that I was doing," Shaheed explained.

"Growing up in West Philly there wasn't a lot of outlets for me as far as artistic exposure or even recreation," he continued. "Even if I wanted to travel outside of the community really. My experience was growing up homosexual in the city and not being able to talk about it. Growing up in as an only child of a single mother. Living with my grandmother for a while. There is a lot of stuff that is still with me. So that is the premise of the company, to tell my stories and have other people tell their stories through dance."

The central piece at the Painted Bride is the choreographer's autobiographical piece "Song of the Sacred."

"It deals with me wanting to fit in growing up and not being able to. And later the dynamic of my relationships with men. And as the title suggests -- spiritual aspects. I grew up in the church but feeling that I couldn't talk about me. In church you are supposed to have healing, but I couldn't talk about those issues. so I started to choreograph things that deal with that.

"In the African American community there is still a phobia talking about these things whether it hurts or not. Especially at a time when there is a surge of HIV among young black men and single women happening," he said.

As for his move, he's psyched: "We were incorporated in New York, but I'm moving us here, I want to be part of this. Hopefully it brings people together- the artistic community, civil community, gay community, family... everybody."

Dance Iquail! performs on November 18, 2010 at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA. For more information visit the Painted Bride Arts Center website or the company's website.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.