Remembering Frank William Shawl, dance artist, educator and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center co-founder

Frank Shawl. Photo: Gregory Bartning

Frank William Shawl: 1931-2019

Frank William Shawl, dance artist, educator and co-founder, along with the late Victor Anderson, of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California, died peacefully at his home on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 at the age of 87.

Born in New Jersey in 1931, Shawl was a beloved and revered teacher, dancer and choreographer in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 55 years. The Shawl-Anderson Dance Company was a renowned dance repertory group in the 1960s and ’70s and spawned many of today’s prominent dance artists.

Shawl was known for his capacity to appreciate life, art and people in a way that made everyone he encountered feel unique. His unflagging optimism and gracious, generously expansive way of moving through the world radiated light all around him throughout his life, even until his final day.

Shawl’s family joked that he learned to dance before he learned to walk. By the age of five, he was enrolled in dance school, and, at 17, he landed a job dancing with the Roxyettes at New York’s famed Roxy Theater, a job he referred to as “theater boot camp.” From there, he found work on Broadway and in television, as a featured dancer on the Perry Como and Red Skelton variety shows, dancing opposite everyone from Betty Grable and Myrna Loy to Ginger Rogers, Debbie Reynolds and Tallulah Bankhead.

But it was modern dance that fascinated Shawl most. He found his lifelong muse, mentor and friend in May O’Donnell, the Martha Graham soloist who had become a choreographer and director of her own New York City-based company. Shawl studied at her studio for eight years and joined the May O’Donnell Dance Company in 1954. O’Donnell had a less competitive, more inclusive style of teaching than Graham, based on nurturing and collaboration, and Shawl, along with his friend and fellow company member, Anderson, knew he wanted to spread that ethos beyond New York.

In 1958, the two men headed west to settle in the Bay Area, where Anderson had grown up. The Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, a school for children and adults, found its first home above a liquor store in Berkeley. Classes cost two dollars, and Shawl and Anderson taught them all for several years. The tiny studio had no right angles, and a pillar that jutted up through its center — until Shawl’s father, a building contractor, advised that the pillar could be removed. Without telling the landlord, Shawl and Anderson took a sledgehammer to the pillar and spirited the rubble away for weeks in their dance bags.

Shawl appeared in concert with the legendary modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman and returned to New York to assist Ms. O’Donnell. In 1962, he and Anderson founded the Shawl-Anderson Dance Company, which would perform to national and international acclaim for the next fourteen years.

By 1968, the one-room dance school was at capacity, and the company needed more space to rehearse. Shawl and Anderson mustered their courage and their life savings and bought a Craftsman house across the street, gutted the interior and transformed the space into four sunny studios. Today, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center is Berkeley’s oldest performing arts institution — a vital hub of dance in the East Bay, that continues to transform lives through movement, reaching more than a thousand dancers, aged 2 to 92 each week. Countless artists have come to the Center to study, teach, make and show new work, and celebrate dance.

Frank Shawl taught me about good dancing, and showed me what good aging looks like,” says New York City-based choreographer Kate Weare, who had her early training in dance and choreography at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. “He never stopped performing brilliantly or taking class. Vibrantly interested in and ignited by young artists, he never condescended, he believed in our potential, and he was honest, bracing, loving and generous of heart.”

“Dance and love were the compasses of Frank’s life,” says Shawl-Anderson Board President Steve Siegelman. “That spirit lives on day after day at Shawl-Anderson and in the hearts and bodies of the thousands of dancers whose lives he gently shaped.”

Frank Shawl was the son of Frank Shawl and Ann Renard. He is survived by his sister Margaret M. Maralla of Wayne, NJ, his niece and nephew Kathy and Ralph Vitaro of Kinnelon, NJ, his nephew and niece Matthew & Darla Tullo of Wayne, NJ, his aunt Margaret Hallar of Greenville, SC, and great nieces and nephews Michelle Nieves, Leo Nieves, Nick Vitaro, Erica Tullo, and Jenna Tullo.

A celebration of Frank Shawl’s life is planned for the near future in Berkeley, California. Information will be available at shawl-anderson.org. His family asks that donations be made in his memory to the Frank Shawl Legacy Fund at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.