Shapiro & Smith Dance goes on without Shapiro

Shapiro & Smith's biggest work to date is an homage to working-class American life called "Anytown." Danial Shapiro had every intention of dancing in his company's latest series of concerts, but succumbed to prostate cancer just weeks earlier.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

Joanie Smith, Danial Shapiro's wife and partner in Shapiro & Smith Dance, sits at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, two matching necklaces around her neck, and two sets of wedding rings on her fingers. Her husband may have died, but he's very much still with her. Over the past month, she says, letters of condolence have been flowing in from around the country and the world, calling Danny Shapiro a hero, a role model and an inspiration because he continued to dance in the face of death.

Shapiro and Smith
Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith: husband-and-wife choreographers behind the company Shapiro & Smith. Shapiro died in October from prostate cancer.
Photo by Nan Melville

"But I know little Danny, that likes to play video games and likes his dogs and...oh, just exuberant and loving and a nice guy," sighs Smith. "I was just thinking the other day, 'Boy, I was lucky!' So lucky."

Shapiro and Smith's partnership seems to have been destined. Smith says she first met Shapiro at UCLA when he was a freshman and she was a grad student. They met again in Murray Louis's dance company in New York. It wasn't long before the two were married. They hung out with Joanie's sister, musician Soozie Tyrell, and her good friend Patty Scialfa, known both for her music and for being married to Bruce Springsteen.

Those evenings would inspire Shapiro and Smith years later to choreograph "Anytown," the piece the company is performing this weekend. It's a tribute to American life, full of both joy and sorrow. They choreographed it in the wake of Shapiro's diagnosis with prostate cancer. Smith says that while dancing it now, after her husband's death, a certain movement with company member Carl Flink suddenly has new meaning.

Human Experience
Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith's work "Anytown" seeks to capture the fractured images of American life in all their complexity. Joanie Smith says their work is often marked by moments of humor alongside deep seriousness and raw emotion.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

"At one point there's an image with Carl and I remember telling him when we first choreographed it several years ago, 'Carl, this is like I'm crawling into the grave with you because you're my husband and you've been killed in battle.' Well, Danny and I weren't thinking consciously about things like that, but it must have been in our minds somewhere," says Smith.

Shapiro and Smith's dance is inspired by their own personal stories, as well as the stories of the other dancers in their company. They developed a national reputation for their work and have choreographed for the likes of Alvin Ailey Dance as well as their mentor Murray Louis. They loved their work.

So when Shapiro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002 and told he likely had no more than a year to live, he didn't stop dancing. He often went straight from chemotherapy to rehearsal. And he kept dancing for four more years. Southern Theater Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett recalls seeing Shapiro perform, by this time completely bald from the radiation.

Celebrating the Human Spirit
Shapiro & Smith Dancer Kelly Drummond-Cawthon says she feels she is able to teach her dance students about human relationships through the company's choreography. She says the work celebrates the human spirit as much as it does the human body.
Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

"Danny had just an absolutely vibrant personality on stage he would perform in a really deep and heartfelt and human way," says Bartlett. "His physical focus and the articulate way in which he used his body was just amazing to watch."

Bartlett says whenever Shapiro called or walked into a room, it was always good news. Bartlett says Shapiro and Smith collaborated in a unique and creative way, and he'll miss that.

Smith agrees it's going to be a challenge to continue choreographing new work without her life partner there with her. But she's going to.

"Some of the most startling and beautiful images are his," says Smith. "We're going to have to find that within me and within the other dancers. We've always used their movement and their ideas, and so that's just going to have to expand."

Smith says there's also a wealth of past dances to re-explore, many of which have never been performed in the Twin Cities.

Shapiro and Smith Dance will be 20 years old next year. One of the core dancers, Kelly Drummond-Cawthon, has already been making sure that Shapiro is remembered by another generation of dancers. For years, she's been teaching Shapiro and Smith's work to her own dance students. She says their style of dance conveys not only the beauty of the human body, but also of the human spirit.

"I haven't found any other dance where I can learn so much about myself and share so much with a student," says Drummond-Cawthon. "They connect to the dance, they connect to each other through the dance in a way that I don't know how to teach them; the dance teaches them."

Danial Shapiro had every intention of performing this weekend with his company. But a turn for the worse this past summer became a steady decline, and he died on October 3. He was 48. His wife and widow, Joanie Smith, says this weekend they'll be dancing for him, and she's quite sure he'll be watching.