Meet TWU’s First Black Male Dance Doctor
July 25, 2022 – DENTON – Iquail Shaheed is no stranger to performing.
The 38-year-old dancer has an illustrious CV. He has performed professionally with the Thor Company in Brussels, the Sean Curran Company, Ronald K Brown/Evidence and the Fred Benjamin Dance Company. He has performed in Broadway productions including Hot Feet, The Lion King and Purlie, as well as in film and television. He is the founder and executive artistic director of his own company, Iquail Dance.
But it is rare that it occurs motionless.
This summer, Shaheed appeared before an audience of more than 100 people — some zoomed in and some in person — on the campus of Texas Woman’s University to present his thesis before defending it in private session. Then he was excused for the committee to review his judgment.
“I didn’t even have time to wait for the elevator to take me downstairs,” Shaheed said.
A few minutes later, the verdict fell.
“I’m a dance doctor,” Shaheed said. “Happy dancing doctor. I’m so excited, I can’t believe it.”
Even at a university that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, there are still hurdles to overcome. Shaheed broke one of them when he became the first black man to earn a doctorate in dance at TWU.
“In dance, a lot of doors were opened early on by women,” he said. “College dance programs were started by women. Continuing that legacy is where TWU is situated, where this dance program continues to push the boundaries of inclusivity so that a black man can come to university and write a thesis. It’s not lost on me. If these pioneers – to use that word purposely – hadn’t created this program, I might not have been lucky enough to get a doctorate in dance.
“There aren’t many dance doctors. I’m grateful to be a trailblazer, to follow in the footsteps of other trailblazers.”
Shaheed’s research and thesis focused on another dance pioneer: choreographer Milton Myers, who lives and works in New York. Myers is resident choreographer and instructor for PHILADANCO! and has been on the faculty of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, Peridance, STEPS on Broadway, The Juilliard School and Jacob’s Pillow, where he has coached and mentored dancers for 36 years.
“In the textbooks, there’s not much written about him,” Shaheed said. “Doing the research, the history, the interviews, what came out was the title of his work called ‘Joy’. I then used joy as a method as a theoretical framework to analyze Myers and to argue that all of his work was always on joy.
“He has been working for almost 60 years and has always worked happily,” Shaheed said. “Part of the reason I wanted to write about him was to say that joy is something to use as a connection, as an inspiration, as an outcome. Here is an artist to pay attention to, what he did, and how it opens up that we all seek and want joy, especially in a society often so polarized.”
Shaheed’s life has been building for a long time up to this moment, and his academic journey is as impressive as his professional journey.
At 13, he was accepted into the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, then studied in the training and instruction program of the Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO). He trained at the Philadelphia Dance Company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, the Paul Taylor School, the Juilliard School, Jacob’s Pillow, the Pennsylvania Ballet School and the International Ballet Theater School.
As an educator, he is on the faculty of the Ailey School, Steps on Broadway and the Harlem School for the Arts. He has taught at Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet School, Center Stage, Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts High School and Purchase College – SUNY, and internationally in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.
Going after a doctorate seemed natural.
“I’ve always wanted one since I was a kid,” Shaheed said. “There’s so much I can do in my community, being a black person from Philadelphia with a Ph.D. How it can teach the world in general, just different cultural connections, cultural backgrounds, documenting that work in different ways. For to bring attention to how my community has functioned. But also to teach in academia. I am still a professor. Now I also have the knowledge to conduct and write research to reach more people. The Ph.D. was less about being a doctor and more about learning the skills that will allow me to communicate and document people’s work.”
Shaheed’s journey to a PhD was made possible by TWU’s low residency program, which allows students already deeply involved in their careers to pursue a PhD without time off work. Shaheed’s schedule included travel, touring and performing, as well as teaching in New York and at Goucher College in Baltimore, Mary.
“I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t an option,” Shaheed said. “I am eternally grateful and hope that TWU maintains a low residency option for the PhD program.”
TWU had another strength that no other school could match.
“The other reason it was only possible at TWU was because of Dr. Rosemary Candelario,” Shaheed said. “I strongly believe that if I had done it somewhere else and hadn’t had her as my advisor and teacher, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it. I’ve had deaths in my family. I was going through a tumultuous tenure process. I was trying to get my own choreographic work off the ground. I was raising two kids, trying to get them through college. There were times when Rosemary challenged me and pushed me to do the job and be better, but his way of teaching through care and generosity is really the only other reason I can say I have a PhD from TWU.”
Candelario found the relationship equally rewarding.
“Iquail’s mentorship over the past six years as he has become a dance specialist has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my job,” she said. “His thesis has the potential to change the way we in the field think about black men in American concert dancing as well as the way we think about Horton’s legacy. Additionally, I see Iquail taking it forward by mentoring some of our first-year doctoral students, by sharing their experiences and lessons learned.”
“She carried me when I needed her,” Shaheed said.
It’s not just a figure of speech or a reference to improving the mind or mental health. There was a very literal transport Shaheed required.
In 2017, while performing on stage in front of a thousand people, Shaheed ruptured his Achilles tendon in his right leg.
Shaheed did not collapse on stage, but the pain from such an injury was described as instantaneous and severe. And debilitating. He had to learn to drive with his left foot and underwent a year of rehabilitation, unable to put weight on the injured leg.
“I was walking around campus on a small scooter,” Shaheed said. “I would have to ride through the heat of a Texas summer on a scooter with a plastic bag over my leg to make sure the sweat didn’t get in. It was just miserable. My cohort would ride the scooter and help me carry it up the stairs, and Rosemary would get me a wheelchair to roll around the building.
Unfortunately – and dramatically – things got worse.
A year later, just two days after his doctor cleared him to resume full activity, he ruptured his Achilles tendon in his left leg.
“The second time I was teaching a dance class,” Shaheed said. “I didn’t want to scare my students, and in turn scare myself, so I just had to ignore it. But I thought to myself, you’re kidding.”
Another year of rehabilitation and scooters followed. His recovery finally came to an end in the fall of 2019.
“I worked for it,” Shaheed said. “To get to that moment of joy, when joy was the dissertation, I had to go through a physical and emotional process. But, needless to say, I found joy.”
Joy that quickly spread through his family. Shaheed is the first person in his family to earn a doctorate.
“They’re all beaming,” Shaheed said. “They keep calling me. My victory is their victory.”
It’s also a big win for the dance community, extending Shaheed’s influence beyond the stage and the classroom.
“It gives me the opportunity to speak and write about my work,” he said. “A lot of my work is about social justice and bringing attention to voices that often go unheard. It adds a greater ability to have those voices heard. From people who have been incarcerated, from people with struggling with physical, emotional, and psychological issues and being able to do that in writing and in performance that I couldn’t have done before I had a doctorate, and to travel the world and do this work and collaborate with different communities and to write about what these collaborations mean. available in dance history textbooks so that we can teach these things in colleges or in the community in a way that would not have been available without a Ph.D. This is already starting to happen.
Shortly after Shaheed got his doctorate, he received two offers to bring his company.
“It’s so many different emotions rolled into one,” he said. “It’s an honor to do this, but I’m also sad because there are probably dozens of black men who have not been able to reach these heights just because of maybe HIV and AIDS or social issues that kept dancing men from living until their later years.” I carry all of this with me. The pride of carrying their heritage, of opening the door to others. It’s all of those things rolled into one.
“I guess the only word I can describe is joy.”