CJ: How long have you been dancing Shelley?
SM: I started dancing when I was at Wolmer's Prep in their after-school dance programme. We used to enter Festival a lot so it was more from a performance perspective. I was under Adrian Fletcher for the first two years, and then Barbara McDaniel came to Wolmer's so I was under her for the rest of the time I was in prep school. We did mainly all the Jamaican Folk, Traditional Folk dances, and Cari-Modern-type things, but not uber-technical stuff. It was mainly about performance, unlike abroad where they do it in reverse with the technical training first and then adding the performance to it. But (our way) works out well in that you get rid of all the issues of stage fright and so on. As a kid I was very active. I was a major tomboy, loved running up and down playing football and cricket, riding my bicycle, climbing trees. Anything active and outside was me.
CJ: Yes, I think I once read an interview where you said that at one point you were trying to decide whether to become a dancer or a footballer...
SM: Well not so much. I think it was more a matter of getting a little more logical as I got older. My brother was playing Manning Cup football at the time. I used to play with him and his friends on Saturdays and Sundays, and because of the level I was playing at they stopped looking at me as a girl. So I was getting the 'licks', getting the 'drops', but also by then I was in high school and Wolmer's had established its annual season, so I was taking classes there and at the School of Dance. So I realised that if I was playing football and it was affecting the dancing, something had to give.
CJ: From your days at Wolmer's you transitioned to Dance Theatre Xaymaca. Talk to me a little about that.
Well the way that DTX was formed was that the people who started out as the juniors in the Wolmer’s dance troupe had grown up and started University, and we were dancing alongside five to ten-year-olds. And we were like “this is not making sense anymore, we need to make the next step”. So we pushed Barbara McDaniel to form a senior company, and because of the number of us that wanted it to happen she decided she would try it for a year. DTX was a great experience for me. It was there that I was able to hone my choreographic skills because Barbara gave me freedom to explore my artistic ideas. And while I was there I was also their rehearsal director. And I like to push, I like to go for 100%, I like to clean dances and have people functioning like a machine, a unit. Individualism is good in dance but you have to remember that it's a team scenario, there are no “stars” shining onstage. I'm all about the team effort, because aesthetically when you go to a show if everyone is strong it makes for a better production. So that's where I was coming from as the rehearsal director.
CJ: So your discipline was inborn and not something that you acquired when you went to Cuba to study later on?
SM: Yes, I would say it was inborn. I have always been just as serious about dance as anything else. It was a hobby, but I always knew it wasn't – if that makes sense. Because I wanted to reach a particular level of excellence, I approached dance with the same level of seriousness and structure as I approached my schoolwork. Cuba was a by-product of being driven. I had started at UWI doing Actuarial Science and when I was there I joined the UWI Dance Society and got to work with fantastic people such as Patsy Ricketts, the late Howard Daley and L'Antoinette Stines, and I was like a little sponge, just soaking up all the knowledge they had to impart. By the end of my first year I was like “Actuarial Science or Dance?” To be honest it wasn't a difficult decision for me. By this time (Cuban dancers) Arsenio Andrade and “Toki” Gonzales had come to Jamaica to dance with the NDTC and they were known for being technicians and fantastic dance artistes and it was just a testimony to their training in Cuba. In addition to that, I had a friend named Dwayne Barnaby who used to be with Little People. He had gone over to Cuba and when he came back after three years of training he had gone from being a talented dancer to being an exceptional dancer! And so between conversations with him and Arsenio who taught me, and the financial logistics of studying there versus America or Europe it became a no-brainer. The training and experience of the culture were a big part of my development as a dancer and as a person.