In Memoriam: Frank Shawl

By Sima Belmar

December 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Frank Shawl dancing

Photos courtesy of Shawl-Anderson

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

—Peggy Lee/Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller

Frank Shawl, co-founder with Victor Anderson (1928-2017) of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, died at home, the evening of October 4, 2019. A dear friend of his and mine, Ann DiFruscia, and devoted caregiver Evelyn Johnson were by his side. I had visited Frank that morning. My husband Antonio and I found him spectral in his bed, mouth agape, eyes at half-mast, his cat Booboo nearby, trees visible through his window, a pile of stuffed camels on a chair. Frank’s apartment was wall-to-wall camels: camel statues, camel paintings, camel drawings, camel engravings.

We told him we loved him and said goodbye, then sat a while in his living room with Rebecca Johnson (SADC Executive Director) and Abigail Hosein (SADC Administrative Director). Rebecca told us that Frank’s last words to SADC Board President Steve Siegelman were, “You have such nice teeth.” Abigail told the story of Frank’s encounter with a camel in Egypt. When the camel took off running with Frank on board, he said it was the most exhilarating feeling. And when the camel handler started to admonish the camel, Frank said something like, “Don’t you hurt this camel! He is perfect!” Before we left, I went into Frank’s room one more time. I stroked his forehead and told him that I believe that our spirits pre- and post-date our bodily incarnations, so his spirit will be here once his body says farewell.

The last time Frank spoke to me was about three weeks before he died. I walked into his bedroom, he opened his eyes and said, “Simeleh.” Frank often called me by this Yiddish diminutive. We used lots of Yiddish words together: That performance was dreck! What a pain in the tuchus! I’m gonna plotz! Frank, though New Jersey born and raised, was a New Yorker through and through. We like to tawk in New Yawk accents together. Brooklyn and Joisey, togethah forevah.

How ya doin’, Frank?
I’m doin’.

Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson pose together
Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson

His caregiver brought him water. He took a sip and said, “I don’t like it.” I played him one of the Peggy Lee songs he used for the solo he made me in 2002. He named it “A Life” because it traced the development of a woman from child through adolescence into the twilight years. He had me dance with a ragdoll. He coached me to perform with chutzpah, extra schmaltz on the side. I thought the piece was a bit over the top, snotty postmodernist that I was at the time. But Frank was a showman, through and through. Over the years, whenever I’d find Frank and Victor standing together behind the desk, Victor would smile humbly and Frank would grin broadly, Victor stalwart, Frank shimmying. Stalwart and Shimmy—that about sums up the unlikely pair that built the house of dance so many of us in the Bay Area call home.

At the end of the song (“Is that all there is?”), I thought he had fallen asleep but then, he opened his eyes and said, “I love that.” Before I left his room, Jeopardy! flickering mutely on the TV, Frank said, “It’s important that we…” He didn’t finish his thought but in my mind it was complete. The most important thing is “we,” not I, not you. Frank and Victor created a space of we at Shawl-Anderson. They always say, a community that trains together, stays together. I know—nobody says that but that doesn’t make it less true.

Several years ago, Frank quietly stopped coming to the studio. I saw him infrequently—at his apartment in Oakland for his birthday parties every December 27, an occasional sighting at a show or open rehearsal. My image of him as a little lost, foggy, frail, and sedentary had temporarily eclipsed my memory of him in his full vitality. But two days after he died, I went to dance church as I always do on Sunday mornings—Randee Paufve’s 10am advanced modern class—and memories of Frank in the flesh came flooding back. Videos of Frank dancing 20 years ago, 40 years ago, were playing in the lobby above an altar with photographs of those epic cheekbones, and I started to feel him everywhere, baked into the marley and the wood, encouraging, enjoying, and invigorating the space. (I’d forgotten what an extraordinary dancer he was. The footage of him when he was 67—you should see him drop to the floor in a Humphrey fall, seamless!) The 25-dancer-crowd included many who’d known Frank for decades and several who hadn’t had the chance to meet him. Randee taught many phrases that centered around the chest, rib cage, and upper spine—in other words, a class about and around the heart. Needless to say, many of us cried. I had to leave the room for a moment after a particularly heart-chakra-oriented movement: a half figure eight of the thoracic, the back of the spine skimming the rim of an imaginary bowl to end low and curved. The perfect massage for a grieving heart.

Frank Shawl teaching dance class
Frank teaching class

Randee talked about how Frank would come upstairs to look in on class every time she taught. She could recognize his footsteps on the stairs. I had forgotten about that. He did the same when I taught class, his erect and open figure occupying the doorway, an ear-to-ear smile, a couple of moves to the music, then gone.

During our last conversation, I asked him, “Frank, what’s with all the camels?” He looked at me for a little while then whispered, “I love them.” This is quintessential Frank—there’s nothing to analyze here, just love. This is how he related to me and, it seems, to nearly everyone whose life he touched: with love, just because we.

I want to thank the people who took care of Frank these last years. These people made it possible for him to live and die in his beloved apartment in Oakland surrounded by love. He was an easy guy to love but caretaking is never easy, and it almost always goes unrecognized. Thank you, Frank’s Angels, Ann DiFruscia, Nancy Fishman, Nina Haft, and Rebecca Johnson; original caregiver manager, Brian Smith; caregiver manager and caregiver, Cheryl Griffin; and the caregiver team, Carla Charles, Gwendolyn Gaston, Evelyn Johnson, William Lancelot Macias, and Andrea Strauss.

When going through Frank’s papers, Ann DiFruscia found a letter I wrote to Frank before I moved from California to Rome. I wrote the letter under the assumption that I would not be moving back to the States—ever. I came back in 2008, just in time to celebrate SADC’s 50th anniversary. I’m grateful I sent Frank that letter. It means he knew how much he meant to me. I share it with you here.

11 July 2004

 Dear Frank,

I’m in the back seat of the blue Honda Civic that belongs to Randee’s friend Johnny. Randee is driving and Stephanie [Miller], who dances the duet with Rebecca [Johnson] in Cleave, is in the passenger seat. Riding shotgun, as they say.

You and I forgot to say good-bye. We forgot that you were going to New York and that you wouldn’t be returning until I was gone. (Our planes may pass each other in the sky—I’ll choose a moment to wave to you.)

I don’t have a pretty or appropriately humorous card for you. Only this plain steno notebook. We are driving back to the Bay Area from Portland where we performed—well, I think.

 You and I are no-frills, New York-New Jersey types, so we don’t need Hallmark help. I can write on a plain pad, on a bumpy road, and you will understand me.

 I love you, Frank. You mean the world to me. You and your studio made my life in California rich, warm, artful, full. Your studio is a reflection of your spirit—inviting and charismatic. I believe in multiple soulmates. You are one of mine.

Thanks to the universe, to the delicate mystical machine that gave us those two tearful, joyful lunches at Grasshopper and Naan N Curry. Crying and laughing over two orders of short ribs. We’ve had many moments over the years, but those last two lunches held us and our shared spirit, and I hold them close to my grieving heart.

Thank you for sharing your life with me, your dancing, and your thoughts, your honesty around loss. Thank you for making “A Life” for me, with me. You saw my ragdoll spirit and gave it breath.

Spirit. The word that recurs, that repeats. We, as dancers, know the value of repetition, as an artistic device and as an avenue for learning. So, I repeat, your spirit is a soaring eagle, a weeping dandelion, a mighty oak, a mightier redwood, a delicious bowl of pasta.

Let’s share a bowl in Rome.

I will miss you with every cell.

Love, Sima

That’s all there is. So let’s keep dancing.

You can find Frank’s official obituary on the SADC website. You can experience his jubilant legacy at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. And you can support future generations of dancers by donating to the Frank Shawl Legacy Fund.

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to