Renata Sheppard: Dancer, Teacher, and Entrepreneur

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Renata Sheppard uses her body like a compass during a hybrid dance performance that combines dance and the visual arts. Submitted photo.

By Adolphus Ames –

“Everything I do relates to the body and movement,” said dancer, artist, and entrepreneur Renata Sheppard. “My performance, research, and creations. Movement is the essence of all communication.”

Sheppard’s specialty is dance. “I was trained in ballet, followed that with contemporary dance, and then moved on to being involved in dance film as choreographer and developer,” she said. “I also do dance related research. I travel abroad a lot and my traveling is often related to my research.”

Sheppard credits her family for her involvement in the arts and her wanderlust. “I was born in Naples, Italy,  into a multigenerational third culture family,” she said. “My grandmother was an actress from London that studied at the Royal Academy of Arts. My grandfather was Italian and a chemist. My grandparents created these expectations of crossing borders.”

Her mother, Clelia, has influenced her too. Shortly after moving to the Shore, Clelia created the Cape Charles Arts Enter organization to provide fine and performing arts education to Cape Charles and the lower Northampton County community. 

”I grew up in an environment of facilitating arts for the community,” Sheppard said. “I’ve been charcoal painting since I was 10. I also act, dance, and play the piano. While my mom has been dedicated to facilitating arts locally, I was drawn to a nomadic and global exploration of the same concept.”

Sheppard earned a master’s degree in dance performance and choreography from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Afterwards, she began traveling to other countries as a dance scholar and visiting professor, including Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, India, and China.

“When I’m teaching, I’m bringing body knowledge into other domains,” Sheppard said. “Mostly I’m teaching something related to dance and film or movement and photography. Sometimes, I’m researching niche areas related to dance. I try to keep one foot in academics and one foot in artistic performance and bring those worlds together whenever I can.”

Sheppard eventually felt called to bring her knowledge back home. In 2013, she created Experimental Film Virginia, a two-week artist-residency that fuses elements of dance and cinema to tell stories through movement on the movie screen. The festival is held every summer in Cape Charles and features an international group of writers, directors, cinematographers, dancers, and choreographers. 

“I created EFV because I wanted to create something I always wanted to attend,” said Sheppard. “It’s a peer-supported environment where dance and film can be in dialogue with each other. Dance and film are ubiquitous expressions where language, culture, and all other barriers to communication fall away.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sheppard was also involved in the creation of My Dance Film, a company that worked with private clients who wanted to capture their unique ballroom dance experiences on film. 

Sheppard is driven by the need to carve out a sacred safe space for artists to create and express themselves freely. “I think I have a gift for really seeing people,” she said.  “And because I’m a practicing artist, I understand the very vulnerable process of creating and know the hunger and the need to be supported. I want to create that safe space for people.”

For the next chapter of her career, Sheppard plans to continue developing herself as an entrepreneur and reclaim her former role as a performer and choreographer. 

“Before I created EFV and started traveling and teaching, I was a professional dancer in Chicago and New York,” she said. “In the process of expanding my artistic identity, I had to detach a bit from my connection as a performer. After all of my recent accomplishments, I think it’s a good time for me to cycle back and reconnect with my performer identity.”

Sheppard aims to defy expectations as a performer. “In the world of dance performance, expectations are that you’re done at a certain age,” she said. “I’ve reached that age, but I’m not done. I’m just getting started. I’m excited to break boundaries.” 

Renta Sheppard performs in a short film with dancer Jakub Jakoubek during Experimenal Film Virginia 2022. Submitted photo.
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