Kigali, Rwanda. July 2018

“It's always about creating artists, right? About creating the possibility for somebody to become an artist. Not simply a dancer. There's nothing the matter with dancers. They're great, and some of them are phenomenal athletes, but an artist is a person who thinks for themselves, uses what they have that they recognize and is willing to take their own chances. 
-Twyla Tharp 

When it comes to decision-making, I am led by my heart. This has resulted in a colourful mix of challenges and surprises. Sometimes the uncertainty of the unknown can be daunting, but equally, it can be exciting. As a little girl I hated any sort of change, now I thrive on it. Impermanence is a basic fact of life, whether we accept it or not.

A recent chain of events has led me in a very unexpected direction and got me thinking about the concept of Synchronicity (simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible connection).
First and foremost was meeting Mary, a young Nigerian girl caught up in a human trafficking ring in Moscow airport. Her desperate plight shook me to the absolute core. 
A detailed account can be read here.

Until that moment, I had been wrapped-up in a West End theatre bubble of shows, always searching for the next performing contract. Throughout history, theatre has served societies with powerful accounts of art reflecting life. From a young age, I fell in love with the magic of it; how dancers had the ability to tell stories through expressive bodies, without words, and evoke an emotional reaction from the audience. It both moved me and inspired me to move.

But as Mary squeezed my hand whilst we sat together on the cold airport floor, I could not bring myself to tell her what I did for a living. It felt wildly absurd in the sadness of her situation, and in truth, I felt discomfort in my privilege of choice. I got to choose dance because I loved it. Becoming a professional performer is a deliberate choice. Nobody forces you into it and you definitely don’t do it for the money. You dive in with iron determination and fires blazing.

That being said, it is by no means an easy career route. Away from the bright lights of the stage, a performer’s life is shadowed by financial insecurity, location instability, fierce competition and relentless physical training. Skin becomes thick, pain thresholds become high. But it is a choice. 

Mary did not have choices. No voice. No freedom of movement. No other viable option but to optimistically follow the Russian man who appeared at her village to recruit young girls. How could things be so unfair? She asked why God had let this happen to her. I had no answer. But meeting a trafficked victim in the flesh left a heavy stone in the pit of my stomach. 

With help from the Dancer's Career Development in London, I examined how my career experience might be of use to someone other than myself and those who could pay the price of a theatre ticket. They helped me consider how my passion for dance could marry-up with my other creative interests away from the stage. We formulated ideas using my skill-set to devise work that could positively impact other lives on a more practical and tangible level, perhaps even someone like Mary’s. Most significantly, I recognised that I held a strong belief in the power and unity of music and dance as a form of creative therapy, having witnessed its tremendous efficacy through the children I have worked with around the world.

This started the wheels in motion to researching charities with whom I could volunteer my time. I headed to Rwanda in East Africa to facilitate dance classes at a rural village primary school with charity Together in Sport Rwanda. Overwhelmed by the children and staff’s infectious enthusiasm, I was starkly shown that education is the vital way to break a family’s circle of poverty. Even if parents are uneducated, a child that receives an education also receives a life-line out of poverty. In the U.K, I had walked through a fantastic free thirteen-year education system without ever considering what a gift it was. Our basic British entitlement. I thought back to Mary at the airport, telling me through tears and broken French-English that she never attended school. Again, the stone weighed in my stomach.

The next link in the chain of events was saying ‘yes’ to my best friend Chris' invitation to an unknown evening function in London. We found ourselves at the 10th anniversary of Annie Lennox’s women’s empowerment organisation The Circle. I could barely believe we were there, talking with a room full of powerful female change-makers whose interests aligned  precisely with my own. Inspired and uplifted by the incredible life-changing projects Annie and her team were supporting in Africa and India, I left with the name of a company I’d never heard of scrawled on a little piece of paper in my pocket. Eternal thanks to Chris for putting me in that situation and his constant support.

When I returned from Rwanda, I found the scrap of paper with ‘MindLeaps’ written on it and discovered that the organisation’s mission epitomised what I had been searching for … Education through Dance. My heart did a somersault.
MindLeaps is an N.G.O, operating in Africa to empower vulnerable street children, at-risk youth and refugees from post-conflict countries through a dance programme that guides them to safe spaces, academic opportunity and skill development. The programme improves cognitive skills and social-emotional learning to help children perform better in school and make positive life decisions. These young people may be homeless, fleeing war, victims of genocide, rape, slavery, trafficking...young people just like Mary. My current experience  stretches to working with families in relative poverty, homeless adults, teaching special educational needs and school exclusion units, but the majority of developing country issues are completely new territory for me. 

I applied to MindLeaps' ‘Train the Trainer’ programme which equips professional dancers with dance curricula, specialist child psychology and fieldwork in Africa. Their ambassador Misty Copeland, principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, is successfully  bringing MindLeaps' work to the attention of an international audience.  With the generous support of Dancers' Career Development, I will be one of six dancers on the training programme in New York this June, firmly holding onto the dream of one day travelling back to work in Africa on a longer-term basis. 
Further information about MindLeaps' work and impact can be found here.

It is a romanticised myth to assume things ‘just fall into a person’s lap’, as if by magic. More often than not, a person is consciously looking and must be receptive to change. I used to wonder if it was just chance or luck that I found myself in odd scenarios, meeting inspirational people, being offered opportunities that aligned with my passions. Never could I have imagined just quite how one fleeting encounter, and the ensuing series of seemingly random events, would alter my trajectory. 

I suspect Mary and I will never meet again but I would love for her to know that her presence and difficult story directly sparked deep compassion in me. She opened my eyes to the much larger, often overwhelming, global picture. There is no option of shying away in ignorance now; pretending that is there and we are here so 'there's nothing we can do'. Rather, we can sit in the discomfort of it and examine what can be offered from individual to individual.

After all, we are humans before we are artists. We all create impact. We all have the power to impact each other: for better; for worse; consciously; or unconsciously.

Synchronicity only happens when your ears and eyes are wide open to receiving; when you start saying ‘yes’ to things out-with your comfort zone; when you leap fearlessly into the unknown. Many warn of the dangers of heart-led decision-making; few warn about the dangers of not.

If there is ever a niggling stone in your stomach, an unfulfilled flicker in your heart, perhaps take a leap … see where you land. 

With thanks to Mary.


  1. Sheila, what an impactful, uplifting and powerful article. Thank you so very much for this.
    I wish you all the best in this next chapter of your journey.
    Bless you Mary.


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