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Art & Life with Shelly Hawkins

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shelly Hawkins.

Shelly, please kick things off for us by telling us about yourself and your journey so far.
I’ve been dancing my whole life. I started choreographing when I was in high school setting short dances on younger students, and was always drawn to the choreographic process. I received my BFA from the University of Arizona School of Dance where I studied dance performance and took all the composition classes I could. After school I danced professionally, working for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Artifact Dance Project. I loved performing but it wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing.

I wanted to be making work, not just performing another people’s choreography. I decided to go back to school to get my MFA from the UA School of Dance. This was an incredible experience, working with all of my mentors from undergrad and getting to know them and learn from them in a new way. During graduate school my feelings about dance as contemporary art began to take shape, and I began to find a greater purpose in my work. I got to practice my research and choreography with all the resources I needed and plenty of feedback and support. My thesis work was a 26-minute piece for 12 dancers called “Light Study No. 1. 2017 (For Dan Flavin and James Turrell)”. I collaborated with a lighting designer, Daniel Kersh, and we created a fluorescent light instillation on stage that interacted with the dancers. The graduate program was rigorous and fast paced, and I did not want to lose the momentum I had built up after graduation. I knew I wanted a way to continue making work here in Tucson, so I created a contemporary dance company, Hawkinsdance.

The company’s mission is to contribute to the growth of the Tucson arts community and the greater American cultural landscape by presenting contemporary choreographic works. I believe making and experiencing art is an essential part of the human experience, and essential to expressing the ideas and values of this age. Dance is unlike other forms of art because of the way it is subject to time. You can’t hang it on a wall and see it whenever you like. Re-staging existing works is a big aspect of keeping dances alive. But it’s also extremely important that we as a society invest in the creation of new work. Hawkinsdance just celebrated its first birthday in October! Almost all of the work we presented was original, site-specific work for the Tucson Museum of Art (where we were in residence for the Arizona Biennial 2018 Exhibition) and often featured original music by local artists. We also participated in the Breaking Ground Dance and Film Festival in Tempe, where I will be a commissioned artist this year! It was really hard to make this section brief. I hope this is what you were looking for.

Can you give our readers some background on your art?
I am a dancer, teacher, and choreographer, and I create work for both the proscenium stage and non-traditional spaces. My personal dance history provided me with technical training in Ballet, Modern, and Jazz dance, with particular influences from Giordano Jazz and Lewitzky modern techniques. This is my identity as a dancer, my body’s history, and the well from which I draw as an artist. When creating, I am utilizing what has become instinctual to me as a mover. I care about a connection between the floor and the pelvis, power and movement initiation from the pelvis and the back, and I utilize a lot of floor work. I like to feel rooted in my lower half and let the top half fly around and pull me in different directions. I like to give in to the laws of gravity, and to oppose them. As a jazz dancer musicality is essential to how I express myself, and I’m always seeking a visceral connection to the music. My work is often non-narrative, though typically expresses an evolution or journey. Thematically, my work reflects ideas of feminism, transformation, the afterlife, and an exploration of truth and reality. I like to collaborate with visual artists and I see contemporary dance as an essential part of the greater contemporary art world. As a contemporary dance artist, I want to create on the blank canvas of the stage, but I also want to reach a wider audience and offer new experiences. I create work for film, and often perform live improvisations engaging with other works of art in galleries and museums, where guests can choose to watch or not, and can choose how close they are, and from where they view the work. I’m interested in expanding the way people consume dance.

By its very nature, dance is of the moment. It is performance art, made of flesh and blood, living and dying in the same breath. It is an intrinsically compelling expression of contemporary art that belongs in residence alongside other forms of visual art, to be experienced, enjoyed, and critiqued in much the same manner. I am interested in how the impermanence of dance can find residence alongside other forms of visual art and be accessible to the community without diminishing its resonance, for example in a museum or gallery setting. For the proscenium stage, elements of installation or sculptural work can recalibrate a viewer’s expectation to see the art of dance as more than an isolated occurrence outside of the greater art world. Dance speaks to our bodies. It is my desire to create work for my community which inspires a physical knowing, as much as it tells a story and evokes thought.

How do you think about success, as an artist, and what quality do you feel is most helpful?
When I was a young dancer, I had this idea that I was not a “real” dancer unless I got a job performing with a major company in NYC or Chicago. But government funding for the arts, more specifically for dance, has diminished so drastically over the years, that there are very few large dance companies across the nation, and an increasing number of professionally trained dancers. My generation of dancers walked into a professional world that looked much different than that of our teachers and mentors. It took time for me to shift my understanding of success as a performer. I’m not sure I fully reached my potential in that department.

As a choreographer, I think I define success a bit differently. It’s much more personal and subjective, and I somehow, I feel a lot less pressure to “succeed”. I want others to like and relate to my work, but that somehow seems secondary to my desire to make what I truly want. I think success is simply being able to generate the resources (financial and otherwise) to produce and show work. The cherry on top is being able to create opportunities for other dancers and choreographers, and pay them fairly for their incredible work! If I can inspire my community(ies) (local, state, country, dance world, art world, etc.) to desire and fund the existence of dance so that I can pay dance artists to create and perform work… that would be a dream!! I’m working on making that a reality with my company, but I’m just getting started. 🙂

What’s the best way for someone to check out your work and provide support?
I will be a commissioned artist at this year’s Breaking Ground Dance and Film Festival in Tempe, AZ January 25-26, 2019. I will be premiering a trio entitled, “The Crystal Cave” which imagines a perfect and hidden place, undisturbed and uncorrupted, subject to the laws of nature but not the effects of humanity. The piece is set to an original composition by pianist Anton Faynberg who creates minimalist Neo-classical improvisatory works.

Hawkinsdance will be presenting “The People Electric”, an hour-long contemporary dance show to be held at the Scoundrel and Scamp Theater at Tucson’s Historic Y, March 15-17, 2019. The show is produced and choreographed by myself (Artistic Director Shelly Hawkins (recipient of a stART Mini-Grant from The Arts Foundation of Tucson and Southern Arizona)). The featured piece of the evening will be an expression of feminism and identity, with a stylistic nod to the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s-70s, and music by local artists. The show will also feature “The Crystal Cave”, premiering a few months prior at the Breaking Ground Dance and Film Festival.

We will also be presenting smaller works at events around Tucson and Phoenix areas, and have collaborative film projects in the pipeline. Tickets for both the “Breaking Ground Dance and Festival” in Tempe and “The People Electric” show in Tucson, will be available on the Hawkinsdance website soon. Please visit for tickets and more information, and sign up for our email list to receive infrequent but important updates on upcoming performances. (I write all the emails personally. No junk emails)

We are also kicking off our fundraising campaign for our upcoming shows! It will take roughly 100 hours of studio time to put together “The People Electric”, a show that features 9 dancers. Weather you make a $15-dollar donation to cover one hour of studio time, sponsor a dancer for $1,000, or make any financial or in-kind donation, we consider all of our donors to be true collaborators! It takes a whole community to bring the art of dance to life!

Contact Info:

  • Website:
  • Email:
  • Instagram: @hawkinsdance
  • Facebook: @hawkinsdance

Image Credit:
Personal photo- Katie Burkholder
Orange backdrop pics and shelly in black dress- Josh Harrison, Reflect Imaging
White leotards at TMA- Frank Simon, Simon Photographic
Outdoor stage pic- Eric Hawkins
Man in white pants at TMA- GOATographer

Getting in touch: VoyagePhoenix is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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