Shawl-Anderson Dance Center: Celebrating a Half-Century of Making Dance and Community

By Michael Wade Simpson


In 1958, dance class was $2 at the studio Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson started above a liquor store on College Avenue in Berkeley. Adjusted for inflation, that means they should be charging somewhere in the ballpark of $50 today, instead of $13.

“We used to teach everywhere, from here to Sacramento, when we first got here, just to be able to pay the rent on our place,” he said. “It’s still a struggle, always has been…you accept it and keep plugging away.” Ruth Beckford (the grande dame of Oakland dance) told Shawl, (who had moonlighted as a dancer on the Perry Como show and others) “Frank, if you want to drive in a white Cadillac, teach jazz.” Shawl stuck with modern. “We never tried to get rich,” he said.

A fit, vibrant 76-year-old, Shawl not only still takes class every day, and comes to the studio seven days a week, he also performs with the local choreographers Randee Paufve, Sonya Delwaide, Kimiko Guthrie, June Watanabe and Della Davidson. (“Strong stuff,” he said, “Quite different in style from what I learned at May O’Donnell’s studio.”) Anderson, 79, also remains active in the operation of the studio, lives in the neighborhood, and has become an avid hiker.

Shawl and Anderson met as dancers in May O’Donnell’s New York troupe, which the choreographer founded after a career as one of Martha Graham’s most-favored early soloists. Her school and company on Astor Place became a home for many dancers, among them, Shawl, who walked in at the age of 17, and basically never left. O’Donnell may have been an acolyte of Martha Graham, but her own choreography, and the environment she created for work and study, were of a distinctly different style. Where things were famously intense and competitive at the Graham school, for example, O’Donnell spread an ethos that was supportive and nurturing. Shawl and Anderson brought the same mix to Berkeley, which was like broadcasting wildflower seeds in a freshly mown field. Things grew.

“At May’s studio, the first time you did something really well, everyone applauded,” he said. “At Shawl-Anderson, the students respect each other, help each other along, you can feel the community,” said Khamla Somphanh, who has taught there for four years. For 50 years, Shawl-Anderson has been offering modern, ballet and jazz classes along with a big helping of positive energy. And solid dance training. Mel Wong and Judith Lazarua from the Cunningham company, Raymond Kurshals, who danced with Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, Richard Chen See from the Taylor company, Bob Clifford from Dan Waggoner, Pier Voulkos from the Morris company, Kate Weare, Deborah Vaughn, Randee Paufve and Leon Jackson, who danced in The Wiz on Broadway, are all alums.

Berkeley: suburbs or city? Whatever. San Francisco is close, Oakland right down the street. Most dance studios of this size and professional caliber in similar cities are gritty warehouse spaces in not-so-nice parts of town. At Shawl-Anderson you are presented with a little Disney-moment arriving at 2704 Alcatraz Avenue. This is a dance studio in an old house, with a lawn, and a front porch. You walk up a short pathway, climb up wide stairs and cross a literal thresh-hold to enter. Inside, you find, “a sense of welcoming,” as Shawl puts it.

Forty years ago, when they were evicted from their digs above the liquor store, Anderson and Shawl took a risky path on the recommendation of a savvy student: they bought the house across the street. From the window in the original studio above the liquor store, Shawl had enjoyed a view of his future property. “A musician lived there. In the front window you could see a golden harp, and a black cat.” They ended-up buying the commercially zoned residential house, knocking down a lot of walls, adding steel supports and new floors, and turning it into a dance space. Charles Weidman taught the first class in the new building in 1968.

Cut to 2008: sleepy College Avenue is now location, location, location. A mile down the street from UC Berkeley, it’s in a leafy neighborhood full of million-dollar Craftsmen shingle homes, all wisteria and roses, Volvos and Priuses. And students. The college students live above stores and in the big apartment houses on the avenues, shop at Safeway at 3am, bike to class, and hang-out, laptops ablaze, in the coffee houses. But the neighborhood also belongs to the homeowners, who park their dogs at parking meters, patronize the pricier restaurants, the high-end butcher and bakery, and know the names of the flower seller and the shopkeepers. There is a boutique every few steps. And sushi.

Surprisingly, then, in the midst of all this retail frenzy and demographic convergence, is a haven for dance. If they hadn’t bought the building, they would never have been able to stay this long. Shawl-Anderson is a happy place for kids, for dance companies and choreographers, for professional aspirants, and for adults of all ages. BART stops at the Rockridge Station four blocks away. There is street parking. There are ten places to have lunch within 500 paces from the front steps and six places to buy chocolate. Shawl-Anderson is cozy. Shawl-Anderson is a home.

Kate Weare, whose New York City-based dance company will be featured at Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival this summer, grew up at Shawl-Anderson. She wrote in an email, “This studio that Frank and Victor presided over—and that Midge Kretchmer (who ran Choreo 9 at Shawl-Anderson) taught at—was central to my early dance development. Honestly, I have never found a dance studio since that feels as comparably warm, wise, or as much in service to what art is really here for—to create community.”

“I’ve been embraced as part of the Shawl-Anderson family,” wrote another student, Beverly Berning, a film writer and amateur dance student. “It’s a place where older adults can learn dance without feeling self-conscious. Zafra Miriam is on sabbatical now, but she has mesmerized young girls for years, luring them into her teen jazz class, where they fall in love with her and stay on forever… I could go on and on.”

Yoshi, co-owner of Yoshi’s in Oakland and San Francisco, the Jazz club and Japanese restaurant, wrote, “I’ve been coming here for 30 years. Dance is my spiritual journey, and a way to socialize, too. It’s a place to train in every aspect of self-improvement. This place is very real and wonderful.”

Khamla Somphanh, the Wednesday night modern teacher, former dancer for ODC, and new mother of two, says, “I’m honored to be a part of Shawl-Anderson. Everyone is still hungry for knowledge there. Frank and Victor’s hearts are so big. It’s not pretentious and there are a variety of dancers. I teach a hard class, and everyone picks things up.”

In honor of the 50th Anniversary year, the studio published a commemorative calendar. On the cover is an old photo of Frank and Victor, side-by-side, barefoot in tunics with geometric designs, yin and yang patterns emblazoned on their chests. They wear their hair slicked-back in that 50s, Ricky Riccardo-style; they look to be maybe 30-years-old, doing the early modern dance thing, tucked up in skin-colored tights.

Today, there are 42 weekly classes for adults and 30 different ballet, modern and jazz classes for children. There are Artist in Residence Programs, master classes with dancers from Doug Varone, Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey and Pina Bausch dance companies. There is a Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, learning original choreography by Julie Kane; a pre-professional program in modern dance for high school students, summer technique immersions for high schoolers. There are Pilates and Lifelong Movement for adults, on-site performances, a Saturday salon.

Shawl has advice for young dancers: “You need deep work to sustain a long career. You need a solid technique that gives you strength, that supports your body through all the different styles of movement. If you don’t, the body doesn’t hold up. You’ll have a shorter career.”

“I’ve been lucky,” said Shawl. “I think of José Limón, riding the subway, going to a dismal studio, yet making exquisite work,” he said, shaking his head. “Mentoring is all about availability. You need to give input, be kind and constructive. I often think I became a mentor without realizing it. I’m a firm believer that you live a life that can be of influence to people. In a good sense.”

What would Shawl like to see happen at the studio over the next 50 years? It has been a non-profit organization since the 1960s, so the chances are, the building will still be standing in 2058. “That we still will be a vital, active part of the Bay Area dance community and that we continue to develop dancers who are taught by inspiring teachers.” he said. “It’s not just about the 10am Advanced Modern class,” he continued, “it’s about the beginner classes, about kids dancing, about teaching and scholarships, about community outreach. You have to get dancers ready to become the new dance.”

Michael Wade Simpson is editor of and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He holds an MFA in dance from Smith College, founded “Small City Dance Project” in Massachusetts, and was an NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival, in 2004.