Dancing in National Parks

“We don’t appreciate what we have, and what we have is incredible.” – Katie Shields

Art is a form of expression, whether it be painting, writing, photography or dancing. Art is a way of conveying a message from the artist to the wider world, whether we care to take the time to understand and appreciate it or not. My former college roommate, Katie Shields, 22, understands this concept and wishes to marry an important environmental message with her passion for dance.


Katie Shields, 22

Katie graduated from the University of Tampa, where we met, as an Applied Dance major. Since graduating in the spring she has spent her time as a summer camp counselor and a personal trainer. However, her true passions remain tethered to dance and travel. The topic of our recent discussion focused around her Capstone Project, a senior project for dance majors at UT, which she entitled “Dancing in National Parks”. She explained that the idea for the project started during the summer when she was on a road trip with her fellow camp counselors, 16 people in a five car caravan. They were at Arches National Park in Utah in front of a rock formation when she was consumed by one thought: “I just want to dance here.”


Where it all started: Arches National Park – Katie Shields Photo Credit: Taylor Frame

“How can I make a difference?”

Enter Katie’s journey to “Dancing in National Parks”. As part of the Capstone, seniors are required to plan the project, present it, and maintain a portfolio. The idea behind her project was to bring awareness to the importance of national parks, of nature. “Our national parks are being neglected,” she explained. Attendance to the parks is the lowest it’s been since the 1980s. We are not seeing nature or the parks in the same way as we did then. “Our first intent is to post to social media.” As part of our society, our culture, many of us have become so consumed by taking a picture standing in front of a monument on the beaten path as a way of proving that we were there, as if we don’t then we weren’t actually there. This mindset has removed much of the genuine appreciation from the general population to this consumption.

Katie conducted her Pilot project at Joshua Tree National Park in California with the help of her sister, Stacia Parseghian, who is also featured in the Pilot episode. Katie choreographed a piece and had a few sites within the park that she knew she wanted to film at beforehand. However, in doing so she found that, despite how well the clips turned out, she “lost the organic feeling [she] was going for.” When I asked her what she would change since the filming of Pilot, she explained that it was flawed. “I can’t go into it knowing what to expect. I should have been able to be more flexible. Nature is unpredictable and therefore my creation and I are on it’s schedule.”


Joshua Tree National Park – Katie Shields Photo Credit: Stacia Parseghian

Moving forward, Katie’s end-game goal is to submit this project to National Geographic in the hopes to start a mass scale movement. Like most large organizations, National Geographic has hoops to jump through as they don’t accept unsolicited works. Before she can submit her project proposal, she has to get it produced by another big name producer as a stepping stone to success with NatGeo. Thus far she has filmed other clips in various parks throughout the country using GoPros and iPhones as these shoots were completely unplanned. At one site during another road trip this year, she and a few other counselors stopped and danced, all of them had no prior dance experience. They were encouraged to make shapes with their bodies to express how they were feeling and what they were seeing. They were simply using dance as an organic way to show how they felt. “We were made to move,” Katie says. “I talked to them the whole time; the sounds of nature were our music.”

Growing up, Katie spent a lot of time at Dance Dynamics Dance Company in Illinois learning the basic and technical pieces of dance as a stable foundation. She explained that the focus was on reaching superior technique. While studying at the University of Tampa, she was exposed to a new way of movement and found that there is “so much more to dance” than executing the perfect split or pirouette. Katie is overwhelmingly grateful for her superior technical training, however, she was “opened to a new world of brain compatible dance education at the University of Tampa that focused more on dance concepts and movements based on Anne Green Gilbert’s Brain Compatible Dance Education.” Dance involves beauty and emotion, even without the perfection. With this idea in mind, Katie believes that the “Dancing in National Parks” movement could open a lot of doors for dance and national parks as a way to embrace and respect nature and have more creative license with dance itself. We have National Park Day and National Dance Day. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest a National Dance Day at national parks, especially if Katie’s movement can become a well recognized movement.

I asked Katie how she would respond to potential claims that dancing in the national parks could be damaging to the environment we’re trying to preserve. She “respects the hard work of the people trying to preserve [the park].” When she was filming, there were areas where she would have loved to dance if not for the signs prohibiting entering that area. “If it says “Keep out” then keep out,” she remarks. In compliance with the limitations set by the park rangers, she opted to stay on the beaten path instead.

“‘Dancing in National Parks’ stands out because it’s not a ballerina. I want my dancers to get in nature instead of on it,” was Katie’s response to my inquiries on how this project might be different from others. She wants the project to be a group collaboration on choreography and other aspects of the piece. Above all, she wants there to be an understanding and appreciation of nature. Her goal is to have the choreography come across to people who might not understand dance on an intimate level to be able to as more than a perfection of movement; to understand the message being conveyed.

“Not a studio, not a stage.” – Katie Shields

At the end of our interview, I asked Katie if she’d like to share anything else. She wanted to express the feelings of what it’s like to dance in these places she filmed. One of the places she filmed was spontaneous at Upper Grinnell Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. The hike to the lake was about five vertical miles. She had “no intention of creating the video when going there” but she was gripped with the need to. It was cold, even in the middle of the summer, due to the glaciers so she wanted to dance fast and powerfully, partially as a way to warm up. There were people off screen that were also enjoying the park to witness Katie’s passionate dance who were noticing and enjoying what she was doing, even giving her a standing ovation when she finished. Their reaction allowed her to “feed off the energy”. It reminded her that dancing at the edge of the lake was “not a studio, not a stage.”


Glacier National Park – Katie Shields; Photo Credit: Mary Samson

The “dance zone is one world, then I switch back and I’m dancing in this beautiful place.” While filming, Katie had some reservations as to what she could and couldn’t do, as well as what she was willing to do, like getting down in the dirt and allowing herself to get dirty as she had limited access to a wardrobe. She’s hoping that with some resources, she and her dancers won’t fear what’s in front of them. They can be passionate and get dirty if they need to in order to convey the appropriate movements and emotions.

Katie has “none other to thank than [her] road tripping friends” who inspired her to follow her wildest dreams. In addition, she’d like to thank the University of Tampa dance faculty who were excited with her and provided her with some of the resources that she needed.

I’d like to thank Katie for allowing me this opportunity to share her story and her journey. It’s been amazing to watch and I hope I can do it justice. I wish her the best of luck moving forward.


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