The 2023 Dance Teacher Awards will take place on Thursday, August 10 at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in New York City, and you’re invited! Click here to buy tickets.
Sheila Barker is vivacious, filled with a magnetic energy and infectious laughter. It’s no wonder that the popular jazz teacher at Broadway Dance Center and Marymount Manhattan College is affectionately known as “Mama Shi Shi” to her students. For more than three decades as a dance educator, Barker has strived to bring out the humanity and essence in each of her students. She stands on the shoulders of her own teachers—Thelma Hill, Dianne McIntyre, and Frank Hatchett, all leading African American dance educators and performers of their time.
“I want to help people elevate themselves because I got elevated by my teachers,” says Barker, whose own performing and choreographing career has spanned Broadway, off-Broadway, and television. “Not everyone I teach is going to be a dancer, but they are someone. I want to build them up not only dance-wise, but empower them with confidence, self-esteem, and let them know they matter.”
Barker’s exposure to the arts began at a young age. As a student at the Harlem School of the Arts, Barker learned everything from ballet and violin to modern and West African dance, including Dunham technique. Hill, who founded New York’s Clark Center for the Performing Arts with Alvin Ailey in 1959, introduced Barker to Lester Horton technique. “Horton was my number-one love and baby; it was in college that I was introduced to tap and jazz,” explains Barker.
McIntyre, an award-winning multidisciplinary dancer and choreographer, began teaching Barker at the age of 13 at Harlem School of the Arts. “Dianne McIntyre impacted me with this spirit of becoming a professional dancer,” Barker says, crediting her as one of the big influencers that ultimately helped Barker find her teaching voice. McIntyre gave Barker her first teaching opportunity at the age of 16. “I took over the adult Horton classes at her studio, Sounds in Motion, while her company went on tour for two or three months,” recalls Barker. “I was nervous, but my students respected me and kept showing up. It was uplifting that they trusted me.”
Barker’s introduction to jazz dance was doing a repertoire piece from American Dance Machine while earning her BFA in dance from City College of New York. After she graduated, she took her first jazz class with the legendary Hatchett and became his assistant at JoJo’s Dance Factory, which evolved into the Hines-Hatchett Performing Arts Center. (Richard Ellner renamed it Broadway Dance Center in 1984 after assuming ownership.) Hatchett, once dubbed the “Doctor of Jazz” by ABC’s “Good Morning America,” was known for his signature VOP style of jazz dance. “His class was so powerful,” says Barker. “The energy ignited you on this spiritual journey. He was the ‘icing on my cake’ and made me understand why the other places I had been before then mattered—why my music lessons, Horton and Dunham technique mattered—because all of that collectively came into the space I am in now.”
Barker became Hatchett’s regular assistant in classes and on the convention circuit, which opened her eyes to the broader impact of being a dance educator. “When I am at this table, I have a profound responsibility that was passed on by Frank,” explains Barker. “It’s a big platform, and I realized that whatever I am doing up here, I am influencing the best way that I know how—with intention, care, and love.”
The ripple effect of that legacy can now be felt through Barker’s alums, including performer and dance educator Lauren Cox, who was inspired to become a jazz teacher herself because of Barker. “Sheila Barker made me realize that being a jazz teacher was my calling,” Cox says. Cox is now an assistant professor of jazz dance and pedagogy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Barker opened Cox’s eyes to the cultural and spiritual importance of jazz within her own life and its roots in other dance genres Cox had previously trained in, such as hip hop, contemporary, and theater.
“I cried completely from the inner soul and the recognition that I had been doing jazz my entire life, but I couldn’t name it and Sheila helped me name it,” says Cox. “She has helped me come to the realization that this is my path in order to help the Black plight because the foundation of jazz is Black in America. Jazz comes from the Black community. It’s not only our art, but it is a way of life.”
One of Cox’s favorite memories is assisting and performing for Barker in honoring Hatchett when he passed away in 2013.
“Watching Sheila honor Frank made me understand the depth of her artistry, her presence in the New York dance community, and his influence on her,” reflects Cox. “Seeing how she continues to honor him every single day is something that is really inspiring that guides me in my daily life.”
Barker, whose work as a dancer and choreographer has included soap operas, industrials, music videos, and recording artists, most recently choreographed for the musical Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens last October for the Catalyst Theater Company in Plainfield, New Jersey. She notes that after many years in the industry, she is still evolving. “I’m continuing to learn and grow,” says Barker. But one thing is for sure, she will be present for the students who show up for her class. “I want my students to know I see them,” she says. “I must continue to do the work and let my students know that who they are is special.”
Profiles on the other four award winners are available here.