Choreography Competition Hits Stage at McCallum Theatre

Palm Desert dance instructor's path reflects sacrifices dancers make to do what they love

Shea New, founder and artistic director of The Palm Desert Choreography Festival, instructs some of her students.

Jack Hartin Photos


At age 9, Shea New loved to dance.

She also loved the language of dance as a type of personal expression through movement.

Little Shea’s favorite form of communication was halted with her diagnosis of “bulbar” polio, a rare form of the disease that effected her back and caused loss of breath. Bed-ridden for almost two years, Shea was told she would never dance again.

Fast-forward a few years to a young woman in college hoping to be an oceanographer, but still eager to follow her passion for dance. While studying and waitressing, a 17-year-old Shea took ballet classes with 5-and 6 year olds just to keep her on her toes, so to speak.

With rekindled drive, New transferred from the University of California (UC)- San Diego to UC-Irvine to join their prestigious dance program as a dance major.

“I was told I would never be a professional,” New says. “While I ignored the advice not to transfer, I believed their assessment and did not think that I could be a dancer since I was such a late starter.”

After graduating from UC-Irvine, New was faced with yet another health crisis, a cyst on her ovary. It was in dealing with this problem, and putting her overall health issues in perspective with regards to her polio diagnosis, that New was motivated to focus on dance as a profession.

“On a whim, I decided to go to Vegas with my Dad to wait for a new medicine to possibly work,” Shea New says. “My Dad called a friend who was a producer for ‘Spice on Ice’ variety show and ironically, he needed a
sub for the midnight show. I bought a pair of used skates, took a quick lesson and kind of skated, kind of danced that night.”

“I knew that I could do it, and I got serious about dance and started lessons again,” she adds.

A New New

Despite naysayers and obstacles, New’s perseverance and “can do” attitude transformed her into a renowned worldwide dancer, choreographer, educator, and philanthropist.

• She has danced with the “Folies Bergere”

• She is a founding member of Nevada Ballet Theater

• She has danced in Hollywood movies

• She is dedicated to raising funds for the arts, dancers with life-threatening diseases and using dance to support other causes such  as “Dance for Life in Palm Springs” for the AIDS Assistance Program.

New is also the founder and artistic director of The Palm Desert Choreography Festival. Now in its 16th year, this highly regarded event is considered the gem of the newly coined Palm Desert International Dance Festival presented by McCallum Theatre, Nov. 9-16.

This year, the festival panel will honor “Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient”, Jacques D’Amboise. D’Amboise is an award winning, dance  and choreography legend, having performed as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and founding the National Dance Institute.

The Coachella Valley will host some of the dance world’s most accomplished companies, including:

• I.Am.Me Crew

• Lula Washington Dance Theatre

• Les Ballet Jazz De Montreal

Never give up

New’s efforts to bring dance to the desert has also helped to raise more than $500,000 to support the dance community, bring in professional and master classes to the valley, and provide opportunities for those who have not had the opportunity to learn about dance or perform on a stage.

For example, the East Valley Dance Project (EVDP) creates an educational opportunity for children in Thermal to explore dance, network with professional dancers and choreographers and perform at the Choreography Festival.

According to Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, director of education for the McCallum Theatre Institute, “many of these children have never been exposed to movement or the artistic process that is involved in performing. We want to open up the boundaries to show that dance can inspire.”

In its seventh year, the EVDP provides middle and high school students the chance to work with award winning, professional choreographer, Jennifer Backhaus, to build a routine and perform live in front of their peers on campus as well as on the McCallum stage.

New can relate to their quest.

“If you begin at ground zero and then give movement to these kids so they can get just a taste of what they can do...if they think they have nothing... you can still prove to them with dance that they can do anything,” New says.

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