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News: The Equus Projects Tour

In March of 2023, The Equus Projects came to my hometown of Tampa for a residency at Hillsborough Community College. Artistic Director Joanna Mendl Shaw came with her company dancers, Kat Reese and Clement Mensah, and spent four intensive days in Tampa, sharing their unique interspecies approach to making dances and performing. In 2008, when I was dancing professionally, JoAnna Mendl Shaw invited me to work with her. She was intrigued by my past experiences in the world of horses.

For much of my childhood I spent my summers on our family dairy farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Yes, I am Canadian. I had two horses. One was young and very green and constantly lame, and the other was a hot retired Thoroughbred racehorse, a pacer to be exact. He was fast. Back at home, in Ontario and then Michigan, in the winter, I tried my hand at hunter jumper riding and utterly fell in love. I spent time learning to use my weight and projection to anticipate height and distance. Completing a course successfully was a triumph for not only myself, but also the horse I was riding. I was learning partnership through what I would eventually realize was physical listening. I competed as a hunter jumper and did well for my age.

Then I, at age 17, I took my first dance class as a favor to a good friend. She wouldn’t go alone, so I committed to one jazz class at a local studio. I was seduced and fascinated. And with that, my horse days faded into past history. I received scholarships and began my collegiate studies in modern and ballet. I worked as a choreographer and teacher all through college in studios, and learned other genres such as hip hop, tap, musical theater, partnering and acrobatics, as to include them in my wheelhouse.

When The Equus Projects entered my life at the Bates Dance Festival, this was a chance to combine my two passions: This was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. We spent hours in a round pen open with a horse. It was thrilling. Learning choreographic concepts that were based on the interspecies notion of tracking and herding made perfect sense to me. I had no fear. I found I could draw horses to me without much effort.

I loved this work but could not envision how I might continue, given my responsibility as a mother, to feed my children. So teaching and choreographing would be my main focus.

Fast forward 15 years. Breast cancer. Twice. Double mastectomy. Reconstruction. Radiation. I no longer had any strength in my upper body. I couldn’t lift my arms above my head. I had prided myself on being the dare devil on stage. My nickname, thank you Erin Cardinal, was “Hurricane Shana”. And now I couldn’t put plates up into the cupboards.

I lost my physical joy. Or more accurately, it had lost me.

Who was I if I wasn’t teaching and dancing? Creating and choreographing was my life. I struggled to find gratitude even in the wake of surviving cancer.

So, I decided to ride again. It wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t get the saddle on the horse. One trip around the ring at a trot and I was done. My chest was so tight, I could hardly breath. All the flexibility I had, was gone, and in the day, I was sort of known as a Gumby.

Shortly after the pandemic released us back into the world, I started to really take my riding seriously. I found dressage through a trainer.

Dressage is the ballet of horseback riding. Based in form and technique, it’s like being partnered by an amazingly strong dancer for 30 minutes. The tempo and the musicality of the dressage work led me to re-engage with those physical listening skills I had learned from JoAnna.

The Equus Projects - Joanna-Physical-Listening-Book-CoverJoAnna had written a book about The Equus Projects. A photo of her and a horse was on the cover of the book. (See below) She actually mentioned our work together at Bates Dance Festival. I was in her book!

I bought it and reached out to JoAnna via email. Her response was astonishing. Not only did she remember me, but asked me if I would like to collaborate. I was in tears. I needed this in my life.

I decided to go to New York and take an intensive workshop with her. This was a workshop with dedicated horse time and hours in a dance studio. The workshop was conducted in upstate New York at a beautiful converted dairy barn. We worked with a natural horsemanship trainer who was gentle and wise.

On our way upstate, we stopped to teach a workshop in New Jersey. It was a staff development class that introduced The Equus Projects’ physical listening practice as a way of building community. I hadn’t moved like that in years and was petrified but quickly realized my body didn’t want to let me down. I was grateful.

Soon afterwards, JoAnna told me about a teaching gig the Equus Projects had at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Could I come and join her?

Well, I thought, we can do better than that. Let’s see if we could arrange for the company to teach in Tampa. I have enough room in my house. We could host some company members.

We scheduled a pretty intense tour of Central Florida. Starting with a workshop in Ocala , exploring and working with several beautiful horses; then to H.W. Blake High School in Tampa to explore the art of scoring dance; then a workshop at the University of South Florida Dance Department where JoAnna and Kat Reese taught some eager young dancers. The highlight of this tour was a residency at Hillsborough Community College Dance Department.

Under the direction of Christina Acosta, this program offers dance classes to several levels – not only dance majors but also community members. The residency concluded with The Equus Projects company performing Interspecies Journey, a touching piece about working with two mares and their newborn foals.

I was not only able to participate as a dancer, and producer, but also as an equestrian. My German Riding Pony, Cornelius, was front and center with dancers on the ground, as I not only danced with him, but also rode in tandem with the other artists.This was an experience I want to have again.

Combining dance and the equestrian world is a natural fit for me. As I move farther in my dressage training, I look forward to the day that I can choreograph my first freestyle, and merge inventive equine choreography with the compulsory dressage figures and set to music specifically chosen to fit my horse’s gaits and natural attributes.

Dance Training takes years. Some say 10 years, some say 12, some say forever. Dressage is no different. I am in year 2 of hardcore dressage training. I am not only training myself, but also my horse, Cornelius. The stakes are pretty high: If I practice wrong, he learns wrong. If I create bad habits, it will affect his muscular structure and he could get injured. What if I am dancing in a piece I choreographed with students, and they must carry me for the duration of the entire dance? The responsibility is huge.


My current equestrian journey is a labor of love. As I move forward towards the real possibility of working with The Equus Projects again, I think of how life has a plan. I happen to believe my Higher Power has me. My gratitude knows no bounds.

For more information about The Equus Project.

JoAnna Mendl Shaw
The Equus Projects

Physical Listening, A Dancer’s Interspecies Journey

Imprinted, Dancing with Foals

Physical Listening Virtual LABS:
For all curious movers
Mondays, 3:00-5:00pm EST