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BFA Graduate Caitlin Shill Shares How Dance Has Stretched Her Soul

Shill — a native of Cottonwood Heights, Utah — will graduate with a BFA in dance on April 24, 2020

Caitlin Shill didn’t always plan to be a dance major. She auditioned for the program as an incoming freshman, fully intending to switch majors as soon as she found what she actually wanted to study. But the longer Shill spent in the Department of Dance, the more apparent it became that she was meant to be there. “I felt a profound sense of belonging, and I became acutely aware of an expansive gap of knowledge that I hungered to close,” said Shill. “I was drawn to the knowledge that came from the expression of such a personal art form, dressed with intellect in a way I had never encountered before. It was active, hungry, hardworking and human-centered.” While deeply rewarding, Shill’s study of dance would be far from easy. It would require physical, mental and spiritual stretching beyond what she originally imagined. “I had an impression of the humility, sacrifice and intellect it would demand, but I had no idea how much,” she said. “If dance were a god it would be a sacrificial one.” In her junior year, Shill experienced a serious injury to her right knee, a setback that would eventually lead to surgery and a grueling recovery. “It would be nine months until I danced again, and many more until I felt like I could dance again,” she said of the experience. “There is a bittersweet difference between the two.” As difficult as it was, Shill is grateful for the lessons her injury taught her about resilience and compassion. “College is often a lesson in justice as the reality of the world starts to sink in,” said Shill. “However, I've been instructed more on the rightness of mercy than on justice through the constant support of the Department of Dance and its faculty. If recovering was an accomplishment, it is not mine. It belongs to my families, both in Cottonwood Heights and in the Department of Dance.”

During her time at BYU, Shill performed as a member of both dancEnsemble and Contemporary Dance Theatre, and her work in the department took her across the nation — and the world — several times. Through her dance experience, Shill has found that she has gained profound insight into the human condition. “Being with your body for seven to eight hours a day, listening to it, strengthening it and sharing it creatively with peers and strangers alike is an instruction in every virtue and godly attribute,” she continued. “Our bodies aren’t just objects, they are souls: integrated, whole and full of contradictions. It is through being a dance major that I have become acquainted with myself and humanity.” Some of her most memorable lessons came from her time conducting ethnographic research on a dance study abroad to Beijing. “Researching and observing children of God in an unfamiliar culture was a profound experience, especially in such a personal art form,” said Shill. “I saw dimensions of the human soul and experience that stretched my intellect and expression of identity in ways no other experience has.” Shill invites students to use their time at BYU as an opportunity not only to receive, but also to give of themselves. “I’ve found during my time as an undergraduate that the more you give from your cup, the more your cup will run over,” she said. “It sounds counterintuitive and too good to be true. However, time and time again I have had moments of undeserved or disproportionate joy and opportunity because I opened my heart and gave from an almost empty cup — just to find it running over.” Shill warns that life is hard, and it can be tempting to focus inward rather than outward when things get tough. But that, she argues, is precisely the time when we most need to give. “It is wonderful to give the best parts of yourself,” Shill said. “Your hope, your positivity, your creative spirit. But the greatest gifts — and the ones that cause an empty cup to overflow — are when we give away the worst of us. We give away our arrogance by letting another’s performance inspire us. We give away our greed by offering what we need most to another. We give away our insecurity by helping someone else see how they are succeeding. It is in the cultivation of this simple habit of giving away the best — and occasionally the worst — parts of myself that I can reflect on a full life and education at BYU.” Shill plans to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree in the future, with the goal of teaching at a university.


What did you want to be when you grew up? Ironically, I never wanted to be a ballerina. Oxford was my Disneyland. I venerated higher education and the glistening world of academia. I took a personality test in the seventh grade that said I should be an astrophysicist, and I spent middle school and high school excelling at math just for that reason. My dad still loves to remind me that I could get a double major in math.” What was your favorite class that you took at BYU? Healthy Sexuality, hands down. As a dance major, I was able to dispel so many cultural inhibitions and over-sexualized projections society had made on my body. The Healthy Sexuality in Marriage class helped me name and give form to the things that I felt so pressured by as a young woman in our society, while also schooling me in what healthy sexuality looks like.” Is there a specific work or practitioner in your field that has had a particularly strong influence on you? “Pina Bausch! She created doors in contemporary where rock walls stood, and they are ones that I easily walk through. She was an engineer in movement theatre and has one of the most creative and aesthetic minds I've ever seen. I admire her work greatly and know that I could spend a lifetime creating dance, and she would still surpass my lifetime of good ideas in the first 20 minutes of any of her works.” What is a hidden talent you have or a hobby outside of what you do for your major? “It's not a talent, nor is it hidden, but I have a not-so-subtle obsession with Shakespeare. I dedicate school weekends to reading plays and a week every summer to attending the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. My passion has always been reading, whether it’s research or classics, and Shakespeare is at the top of my pantheon.” What is your favorite snack for between classes? “An unadulterated strawberry Pop-Tart.”