ShaLeigh Comerford is an Irish & Native American choreographer, performer, educator, advocate, and the artistic director of ShaLeigh Dance Works, a dance-theatre company based in Durham, NC and founded in 2005. Her work centers the human experience of “othered” bodies in direct conversation with its environment, history, culture, and forces of erasure. She believes in an approach to art that democratizes process and performance through autonomy and agency. Her work is driven by a desire to uplift powerful stories and voices that address the human condition in relation to political, cultural, and societal oppression and inequalities. Her work stresses human connection and our instinctive human need to connect regardless of race, class, age, ability, or gender. Her engagement practices are an integral part of her work and include partnerships with The Reality Center and Arts Access to provide advocacy, opportunities, and access to the arts for people of all abilities.
She is a graduate of Hollins University with a Master’s degree in Visual and Performing Arts. She began her formal dance training on scholarship with the Roanoke Ballet Theatre and the American Dance Festival and continued her training in NYC and at P.A.R.T.S in Brussels, Belgium. In 2011, she was personally invited to train in the Gaga movement language with Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, Israel for their inaugural teacher training program.
As a young performer, she made her professional stage debut in musical theatre at the age of ten as the lead in Mill Mountain Theatre’s musical production of Alice in Wonderland. She later starred as lead in Roanoke Children’s Theatre’s premiere production and touring version of Charlotte’s Web. She has choreographed over a dozen musical theatre productions for regional and community theatres, most notably Spring Awakening directed by Jenna Worsham at the Lime Kiln Theater and Teen Brain directed by Doug Zschiegner at The Dumas Center.
As a dancer, she has apprenticed with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and has performed with Keigwin & Company, Tina Croll & Company, Dendy Dance Theater, Carolina Ballet, Martha Clarke, Rosie Herrera, as well as a restaging of Batsheva Dance Company’s Minus Sixteen and an Official Music Video for Blind by Christian Loffler. ShaLeigh continues to perform and choreograph internationally and works as an independent director and creative consultant.
ShaLeigh’s choreography and commissions have been presented throughout the United States and abroad in venues such as American Dance Festival, American Dance Guild Performance Festival, Dixon Place, Booking Dance Festival at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Judson Memorial Church, Tokyo Experimental Festival of Sound, Art & Performance, Chen Dance Center, Durham Performing Arts Center, Tokyo Wonder Site Shibuya, Keio University’s Noguchi Room, The Week of Foreign Female Dancers in Tokyo, Serendipity Gallery Berlin, The Ailey Citygroup Theatre, Lenfest Center for the Arts, and The Flea Theater. She has been commissioned by The American Dance Festival, Keio University, Washington & Lee University, Cirque USA, North Carolina Museum of Art, Arts Access, Shannon Media Inc., Cambridge University, Washington & Lee University, Cirque USA, Campaneria Ballet Company, Durham Ballet Theatre, Mill Mountain Theatre, Roanoke Ballet Theatre, Roanoke Children’s Theatre, Virginia Ballet Academy, and City Modern Ensemble.
ShaLeigh has received recognition and support from MAP Fund, Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Durham Arts Council, North Carolina Arts Council, Symonds Family Foundation, Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, Dance Theatre Workshop, North Star Church of the Arts, and NC Artist Relief Fund. She is a recipient of the 2018 Ella Pratt Fountain Emerging Artist Award and the 2013 Institute of Contemporary Art and International Cultural Exchange Award. She has been a showcased artist of Chen Dance Center’s NewSteps Series, Durham Independent Dance Artists, the North Carolina Presenters Consortium, North Carolina Dance Festival, and Booking Dance Festival at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Her contemporary choreography The Within created for Ballet Memphis principal dancer George Sandars was selected by the World Ballet Competition International to be featured alongside Momix and several other award-winning dancers and choreographers in the 2014 Gala. Her contemporary solo Chimera for Pennsylvania Ballet Soloist and 2018 Princess Grace Award winner Sydney Dolan placed in the top 12 and received special mention in the 2016 Youth American Grand Prix Semi Finals.
ShaLeigh has been an artist in residence at Azule, Wildacres, Tokyo Wonder Site Shibuya, Cambridge University, GlogauAIR, K77 Studio, Washington & Lee University, and Dance Theatre Workshop. She currently serves as a national panelist and grant reviewer as well as a speaker on dance accessibility and inclusion across the state. She teaches regularly and offers master classes at a variety of studios such as American Dance Festival’s Scripps Studios, Ninth Street Dance, Empower Dance Studio, Campaneria Ballet, Durham School for Ballet and Performing Arts, Global Breath, and is an adjunct professor of dance at Elon University and Washington & Lee University. She is also Founder and practitioner of ShaGa Movement.
▪ MAP Fund Award [New York, NY] 2020
▪ Mary Duke Biddle Foundation Grant Award [Durham, NC] 2018-19, 2020-21
▪ Durham Arts Catalyst Grant [Durham, NC] 2020
▪ Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artist Award [Durham, NC] 2018-19
▪ Durham Arts Council’s Facility Grant Award [Durham, NC] 2018
▪ World Ballet Competition Gala for Choreography [Orlando, FL] 2014
▪ Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture Award [Tokyo, Japan] 2013
▪ Semi Finalist of the UCI Dance Film Festival [Irvine, CA] 2004
▪ Recipient of Mimi Babe Harris Arts Scholarship for The Crispolti Institute [Todi, Italy] 2003
▪ Recipient of Janet McDonald Travel and Research Grant for Translation of Social Issues through Visual Languages [Roanoke, VA] 2003
▪ Wildacres Residency Program [Little Switzerland, NC] 2020
▪ Creative Residency with Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre [Durham, NC] 2019
▪ Azule Resident Artist [Hot Springs, NC] 2019
▪ Living Arts Collective Artist In Residence [Durham, NC] 2018
▪ Duke University’s Power Plant Gallery artist residency with qUest wiRx [Durham, NC] 2016
▪ The Culture Mill Lab [Saxapahaw, NC] 2014
▪ Tokyo Wonder Site Shibuya [Tokyo, Japan] 2013
▪ Creator-in-Residence at Tokyo Experimental Festival [Tokyo, Japan] 2013
▪ Creator-in-Residence at Cambridge University [Cambridge, England] 2013
▪ Gloguair Residency and Performance [Berlin, Germany] 2012
▪ K77 Workshops [Berlin, Germany] 2012
▪ Even Yehuda Dance [Even Yehudah, Israel] 2011
▪ Bravo Concert Series [Asheville, NC] 2011
▪ Roanoke Children’s Theatre [Roanoke, VA] 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015
▪ Washington & Lee University [Lexington, VA] 2008, 2009, 2014
▪ Virginia Festival of Student Choreography [Lexington, VA] 2009
▪ Mill Mountain Theatre [Roanoke, VA] 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008
▪ Dance Theatre Workshop’s Creative Residency [New York, NY] 2007
▪ Virginia School of the Arts [Lynchburg, VA] 2004
Dancing is when I feel the most alive – and at times has been a means to survive. It’s an experience of becoming that is never quite accomplished and is always reaching while simultaneously waking me up from the dark maze of life. Making dance is when I feel the most connected. It is something else entirely to share experiences that make us feel human, seen, vital, honored, and moved. Making for me is a sacred, shared experience. I believe in an approach to art that democratizes process and performance through a practice of autonomy and agency. I make dance with and not for my company. I teach dance with and not for my students. Together we explore practice-based research and deep community engagement as collaborators, as humans.
My work often begins with something of a vague notion on the edge of consciousness. It is an attempt to explore, expose, and take risks that push me beyond the limitations of what can be named and what cannot. I know the dance I am reaching for lives in that space between. My process is intertwined with reaching into these vulnerable depths while making visible the powers that try to erase or invalidate. For an artform whose tool is the body, my work and my movement language are constantly responding to cultural and political pressures that suppress and subjugate. Both teaching and making are deeply entwined with my engagement practices of working with “othered” bodies. I see otherness as a promise of richness for everyone else – proclaiming to the world that there will always only ever be one of us, and that we have something to say in a way that only we can say it. My work is driven by a desire to uplift these powerful stories and voices that address the human condition in relation to difference and oppression, silence and inequality. My work constantly teaches me about our instinctive human need to connect regardless of our story, race, class, age, ability, or gender.
Sharing our stories, our vulnerabilities, and our differences with audiences continuously feeds my belief in the transformative power of performance. It reminds me that though there are only a handful of emotions, the difference that lives in the telling opens up a whole new spectrum that cannot be named but can be felt and understood. Whether teaching or creating, I see dance as its own language in this way – it speaks what cannot be spoken. The “unnamable” is something that keeps me grasping, yearning, reaching, listening. How did it evolve? How does it reflect our personal and cultural experiences? Our stories and ideas? And the place we call home?