Shawn Short, founder & choreographer Dissonance Dance Theater (Slideshow)

Ballet choreographer Shawn Short is a modern day Don Quixote, stretching to release his love of dance through the Dissonance Dance Theater in Washington, D.C. Photo: Shawn Short 180 (Image: Sergey Apasov)

WASHINGTON, DC, October 10, 2011—Meet Shawn Short - the Don Quixote of dance. A classically trained ballet dancer, Short is the founder of Dissonance Dance Theatre in DC, celebrating its fifth year this month.

Shawn is a chivalric knight. 

Like Don Quixote, knight-errant in Cervantes’ novel, some may say that Shawn’s name is synonymous with battling windmills. Like those who still see Cervantes’ hero that way, they would be wrong.

Shawn Short battles for dance and he does so against all odds. To be a dancer in a company, the odds go like this: At a Manhattan audition, the choreographer told Shawn, “There are 350 women and 90 males here. We need one dancer.”

He danced, camped out that night on the floor of someone’s flat and then came home to try the traditional route of office work at The Administrative Offices of the Judiciary Court in DC. 

But the dancer couldn’t hide. 

The knight in all of us calls out. We, like Shawn, are after the Dulcinea of our dreams, the love of our life. Let us not stop until we find her. 

Shawn’s story rings of Quixote’s trials and the journey into madness that is anything but. 

In the men’s room one day at the sensible office job, Shawn leaned to check his “line,” the dancer’s angle, the arabesque, that 90-degree angle we see on stage. “Could I still do it?” he asked himself. With leg outstretched in front of the mirrors above a sink, he moved into the more difficult arabesque penchée. “I raised my leg first to 90 degrees, then leaned deeper to 140 and tried for 180.”

Someone saw him, made a call to report that Shawn was doing something to mutilate himself in the men’s room. Like Quixote, he was thought to be mad. Like Quixote, Shawn knew he was undergoing the torture of the strappado, bondage where the hands and feet are tied. Like Quixote in that literal state, Shawn stretched to be released.

Called to Human Resources, he performed the arabesque penchée. The good soul who saw the feat that day said, “Shawn, you’re a dancer. You can’t do that here.” She covered for him so he could go to university, study dance during the day, return to the office in late afternoon, do all his work and stretch for love. 

That’s how he earned his B.F.A. in dance at Howard University. But first he auditioned for a week to get in. He danced for Virginia Johnson, director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Kevin Jeff, who choreographed for Alvin Ailey, Walter Knicks, a Katherine Dunham dancer and master teacher. Shawn is the first in his family to receive a college degree. 

Once he graduated he wanted to get on his Rozinante, Quixote’s horse, and go into battle. He wanted his own company. He wanted to choreograph. 

Advice he got: Michael Malone, DC native and choreographer, friends with George Faison, choreographer of The Wiz, told him “Having a company is like having a child who is disabled. You have to give more care when you don’t think you can give more. If you want a company, just know, It’s your life, 24/7.”

He knew what he wanted but also knew he didn’t know enough. Like all great teachers, he taught to learn. He says, “Thank God for my teaching years. I understand the non-verbals that go on in a human being. That’s how I choreograph, how I direct.”

He’s a founding teacher for Washington Ballet’s outreach campus at THEARC in Southeast DC, the ballet school’s outreach site. Shawn is the only teacher from THEARC who has taught at both sites. He’s now a dance professor at Catholic University. 

Dissonance Dance Theatre premiered at Capital Fringe in 2007. Shawn placed an ad for a composer on Craig’s List for Human, his first choreography. Michael Mollo, a soundtrack composer in Los Angeles answered the ad, agreed to compose for free. With no money and big dreams, Shawn was launched.

He rehearses his dancers nights and weekends. But he still goes into battle for the disadvantaged. Kee Juan Hun, the Washington Ballet School’s director, advised, “You need to teach with one eye open and one eye closed. You can’t save them all.”

The chivalric Shawn still tries.

Afternoons at Flashpoint in DC’s Penn Quarter, he teaches young dancers who can’t pay to learn. They learn and dance with his company before formal rehearsal begins. He raises the bar and all stretch.

He raised the curtain for me on rehearsal: Caitlin Granville danced her solo for Shawn’s new ballet Caught. She spun, she leapt, she wept. She jumped into Shawn’s arms when the music stopped and he lifted her in the embrace of the chivalric knight.

Don Quixote tells Dulcinea he is the knight-errant whom love has wholly disabled. Shawn Short teaches that to dream the impossible dream is not madness. It is love. It is the all too human.

Dissonance Dance Theatre will perform in DC on November 20 at The Greenberg Theatre, American University and March 3 and 4 at The Atlas Theatre, 1333 H Street, NE. 

Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster” Find out more at

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Mary Tabor

I’m the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked, which won Mid-List Press’s First Series Award. I graduated from high school and went to college when I was barely sixteen. I always think I am the youngest person in the room—am trying to get over that—or maybe not because I have so much to learn.

You can read more about the so-called literal biography, where I went to school and jobs I’ve held, at but one thing’s for sure: I believe love is the answer. Now, what was the question? In this column, I’ll try to figure that out with you.


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