Megan Shuffle

Megan is a transplanted Texan now working primarily with dancers in the arts and entertainment community of New York City. As a dancer by history and writer by heart, she feeds off a somewhat unbalanced diet of any and all live performance, reading, and barely understanding 19th century theology, full fat ice cream, and prayers of spotting Kevin Bacon and/or Eric Clapton on the street. She loves her family and her job, and holds unswervingly to the aspirations of a professional Porch-Swinger and Sunset-Watcher. Megan is one of many involved in Alegria: Hope Through Art , an artistic collective committed to working towards the benefit of orphans in the Andean region of South America by providing for their physical needs and sharing in the joy of art.

Biscuit Tins and Moss: a Step Inside Peru

“It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden comes somewhere near to it.  It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not certainly for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even for my own past.  And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.  It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

One morning I awoke to the sweat of a New York summer and the next, to the moist breath of the South American coast, thick and rich – a morning breath I can handle – it spoke Spanish. I took a staggered breath and opened my eyes to greet a green wool blanket bunched around my face and covering two thirds of my body.  No sooner had I stretched my legs westward than they recoiled in response to the Peruvian winter air.  Elbows bending — as they tend to do — the back of my limp hands moved to rest on the sockets of my eyes.   I rolled over to my back and stared at the ceiling.  My mind sped along with thoughts of music deep, warm and familiar, of coffee that I needed in my system, of how long it was going to take me to pack my things, and words that needed to be put on paper for the week of classes, of worry about my Spanish skills. My eyes shot open and I got that sinking feeling.  I’m not prepared.

Photo by Adam Sjoberg.

And in that instant, I wasn’t, at least not in the ways that I really needed to be.  My months of planning now seemed like a complete waste.  As I stepped out of bed that morning, I walked out of the expectations that I had held and so carefully crafted for that week, and set my heart about an eagerness to circle around a chapel filled with Peruvian kids trading tools and create something out of nothing.  My new plan.

I would spend the following six days alongside my friends with la Sagrada Familia as we taught six art workshops in a shantytown just outside of Lima, Peru.  The people that made this place, lovingly referred to as The Community, surprised me.  Their Joy surprised me.  The perpetual forward motion of this family unit, 800 strong, was paralleled only by the way they consumed the process of play and life with such a fierce energy and voracity.  In my daily dance class, we warmed up, learned ballet technique, created our own movement vocabulary, learned about composition, and had dance parties set to everything from The Beatles to Cumbia to Sigur Ros.  To my astonishment and delight, the boys ate up every plié and tendu, including Saul, my Michael Jackson- loving, break- dancing, sly- grinning tornado.  As the days went by, and the nerves left my body, I let go of the unrealistic and self-involved idea that what I was bringing to them had to be perfect, and these eager faces before me clenched with the reality: we have to perform.

I could see it coming.  It started in their bellies, worked its way into their hands and feet, and finally made its way to their eyes.  “We are scared,” they said.  “We can’t do it,” they pleaded.  “We all get scared,” I said.  “We are all going to do it,” I assured them.

Photo by Nate Poekert.

On Friday afternoon, four hundred kids streamed into the chapel hall for the ending ceremony, and with every recognition of a friend, a house mate, a teacher, the excitement grew and so did the noise.  My never-before-performed friends grew quiet, but the time had come.  “Ninety percent of the work has been done,” I said.  “The hard part is over,”  I encouraged.  “This is the best part – the sweetest time – you get to share.” And to my surprise, their stricken face turned as they took each other by the hand and ran, not walked, but ran to their spots and we all took our beginning positions.  As we lay down on the floor and waited for the first beat of Michael Jackson’s Pretty Young Thing to hit, I turned my head and glanced at my new friend Saul.  He was already looking at me smiling this fearless grin and at that moment, the moment before the music began to play, when we were all lying there on the ground of this Peruvian chapel filled to the brim with people, waiting in anticipation to break the stillness and the silence, I wasn’t thinking about plans.  I wasn’t thinking about things to do or words I wanted to write down.  I was looking at this young and fearless boy knowing that he was going to tackle with great voracity and courage a fear that was shared by many – that all twenty two of my comrades were about to share their joy.  In that moment, I took a staggered breath, closed my eyes for a moment to hold in the tears that were clamoring towards the surface and as the music began, we all stretched our legs westward.  The world would turn common place again when the music faded away but what would be left was a remembering, a recognition of a place inside we all know we have. What was left to my students was a conquered fear, a pride in their creation, an excitement about sharing their work.

Photo by Adam Sjoberg.

The moment that Lewis described with such startling and grandeous accuracy was longer than a clip; it was a reel, a reel of whose sequel I dream. The dream is that as we as a community continue to invest our love, skill, time, hands, eyes, and lives with these children, that they continue to have their moments of “enormous bliss.” My heart is that these moments would lead them to find their love– whether it is art, industry, education, family, or the people of the world– and live in their hope.  A hope that will grow in spaces made by biscuit tins filled with moss, and will live in their minds and hearts with the resources to make its way to their hands.

That they would continue not only to discover, but share their joy.

Hips: They Don’t Lie [Love Realized for South America]

A winter and some change ago, I decided to take a dance class with a good friend at a studio on 9th Avenue in New York City.  And because we were feeling a bit stagnant, she and I chose a form that was completely and utterly out of our skill set, and even further out of our realm of knowledge.  Shake things up.  Afro-Brazilian acrobatic dance fighting?  Yep.  What else?  Capoeira it was.

My co-hort was running late, so I walked into the studio by myself and began to work some body kinks out, warming up my muscles from the freezing slush of February.  This process is one of my favorites- sadly enough, the chronic injuries feel like old friends re-visited.  They remind me of where I’ve been, who I’ve met, and who I would not like to see again.  I dive into plank and quickly say hello to Mr. Scar Tissue surrounding the back of my ribs who hails from my thesis choreography semester.  I lay on my back, pulling my knee gently to my chest, rotating Miss Hip clockwise, then counter clockwise, then back again and remember the thousands of high kicks that led to thousands of ice packs.  I like to be cordial, so I greet them as I always do, “Hey there fellas, good to see you all again; glad you could make it.”  Once they are dealt with, I lay on the wooden floor with my eyes closed, my Old Friends whispering my name from the past- and I don’t care- because as I breathe, another gang shows up:  Focus, Calm, and Presence. These guys I like, and I am getting to know better. Everyone makes nice, and after a few minutes, the Old Bones take a back seat.

I open my eyes as dancers start to stream through the door all wearing white on white.  I’m in black on black (yep, research would have been a good idea), and the next 60 minutes were spent in warm-up and conditioning, smoothly transitioning into partner work.  It was… athletic.  I spent the entire time in a lunge, a plie, or a transition between the two.  Think of an hour-long wall sit;  that’s what this felt like.

When your legs want to fall off in the first 20 minutes and most everything in front of you is foreign, there is a decision to be made.  Are you going to check out, muscle through, or put a smile on your face and push past the pain to the good stuff, to the new stuff?  That Friday night, I chose to smile.  My friend and I spent the last hour with a room full of experts (is there anything more humbling?) circled around each other, creating rhythms, playing instruments, clapping and chanting, while two at a time, dancers would move to the center of the circle.  And while maintaining complete eye contact, they playfully and energetically improv their time together, communicating completely with their bodies about what was coming next.  I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and you couldn’t have dragged me out of there with the promise of Kevin Bacon holding an ice cream cone.

People made mistakes, and connections were missed, but you were in it with your person center ring, engulfed in the music, wrapped in the rhythm that your community was creating around you.  I didn’t have to force the smile anymore.  I found energy that I thought was a long time gone and began to laugh, And then I started to cry.  Honestly, it was soul- stirring.  I woke up.

As a dancer of any degree, you can spend a large quantity of time in a self-contained universe, orbiting others but rarely connecting.  There is a  difference between staring at yourself in a mirror for two hours aiming for perfection– being separate and alone in a room full of people– and simply facing another human being in a circle with no perfection in mind.  This chasm of perception, it is wide.  To turn your Old Bones to face where the music is coming from, having to somehow find an unspoken connection with another human being, and trusting each other in every movement, provided me a moment of clarity that I’m not sure I had ever felt.  I was in a room full of strangers, most of whom spoke Portuguese or Spanish, and I felt as though I could read them. Scarily enough, they could read me!  Vulnerability  took me by surprise.

That slush-covered New York City night hosted a heightened spiritual experience that was definitive in my heart.  I walked away remembering the communication that goes beyond the verbal and is sometimes the only way to get to certain parts of the soul, because you have to be honest–the body doesn’t lie.