After nearly 30 years of the study of dance — from dancing in Buddhist temples in her home country of South Korea to dance traditions of indigenous peoples of North America to the tango she teaches today — Shiwa Noh finally came to an important realization a few years back.
“All dance is spiritual,” Noh, 44, who since 2013 has operated the Noh Way School at 170 Park St. in Bangor, said. “Tango is spiritual. Tai chi is spiritual. The sun dance is spiritual. … You have to focus. You have to trust. It all comes from the same place.”
Noh, who moved to the Bangor area in 2011 with her husband, acclaimed Indian Island sculptor Tim Shay, can be found every Friday night in her airy, softly lit second-floor studio, welcoming tango dancers of a wide variety of ages, ethnic backgrounds and skill levels.
In the warmer months, the romantic, sensual music spills out through the open windows, audible to passers-by on the street. Couples, locked in the tango embrace, dance several styles of tango. Either the slow, intimate Argentine tango or the slightly faster, more percussive Milonga tango, also Argentine in origin.
Tango requires a great deal of mental and emotional concentration, but the atmosphere on tango nights at the Noh Way School is relaxed and convivial. Dancers bring snacks and drinks to the studio, everyone catches up before and during songs, laughter often echoes through the space.
“I look forward to it. It’s a fun group of people, and tango is such a different dance from anything else. It’s expressive. It’s not just about dancing, it’s about the connection,” said Audrey Cross, 24, of Orono, who has been coming to tango nights at Noh Way for a little over a year. “I was looking for a creative outlet, which are harder to find once you’re out of school. And Shiwa is just such a welcoming person. Her teaching style is so fun and informal, but she just knows so much. She makes things look easy.”
Noh was born in South Korea and lived there until she was 13, when her parents immigrated to the U.S., settling in Long Beach, California. Noh admits she didn’t come out of her shell until she was 15, when she started to take dance classes at her high school. Her facility for dance and movement became readily apparent, and her teacher encouraged her to study dance in college, which she did, attending the University of California, Irvine, from which she graduated in 1996.
From there, she moved to New York City, hoping to break into the city’s professional modern dance scene. Life had other plans, however, and not long after moving to the city Noh found herself sidelined by a torn ACL, putting a halt to her dance career for many months. During that time, she began to study tai chi and became certified in gyrotonics, an exercise technique that focuses on strength and flexibility. Noh still leads tai chi classes Saturday mornings at the Noh Way School, and remains a certified gyrotonics instructor.
Around 2000, she came across the dance style that would become her main passion: tango. After attending a tango night in Manhattan, she fell in love with it.
“Living in New York at that time, I was kind of lonely. I was scared to go to bars. With tango, you just dance, with people of all ages and backgrounds. It was a truly multicultural place. It opened up my whole social life,” Noh, who has traveled to Argentina three times to study, said. “The thing about tango is that even though there are basic steps and things to learn, there’s a lot of improvisation in it. You respond to your partner. It’s a conversation.”
Not long after that, Noh also attended her first Native American fire ceremony, which sparked an ongoing connection for her with many aspects of Native American spirituality, originating from different tribes across North America.
“I felt like it was a way to connect with my ancestors and with my family, and my mother, who moved back to Korea,” Noh said. “That’s how I started going to the sun dance.”
A sun dance is a massive spiritual event celebrated by a number of indigenous peoples across North America, mostly from Plains culture. Noh attends a massive sun dance at the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Sicangu Oyate, the Rosebud Sioux. It was there she first met her future husband, Tim Shay, a member of the Penobscot Nation, though it took the couple several years and more chance meetings to eventually get together. This month Noh and Shay will attend their first Rosebud sun dance with their 6-year-old son, Charlie. It’s also their first since moving to Maine in 2011, after they married.
After moving to Maine, Noh immediately began to search out tango nights, eventually finding semi-regular ones at the now-closed Thistles Restaurant.
She also discovered a monthly tango night held at the former Valance Pilates Studio on Main Street in downtown Bangor. It was there where she met many of the dancers who now attend her weekly tango sessions at the Noh Way School, including Ginny and John Hackney of Orono, a couple who organized tango nights in eastern Maine for years —- until Noh showed up and opened her studio.
“Shiwa just showed up one day. … We’ve been dancing tango up here for a long time, and we’d bring tango teachers up from Boston. But now we have a resident teacher, which is so much better,” John Hackney said. “And a permanent place to dance, too … It’s a really nice community.”
The Noh Way School has hosted tango lessons and dance parties since the very beginning, but the school now operates as a full-fledged dance studio, with ballroom dancing lessons held by Terence Lee Man-Ching, swing dancing lessons held by David Lamon and Irish dancing lessons held by Pauleena MacDougall.
Beyond dance, Noh last year joined the board of the Wabanaki Cultural Preservation Coalition, which oversees the Nibezun Project, of which her husband, Tim, is the president. The Nibezun Project is a nonprofit that aims to eventually purchase an 85-acre parcel of land in Passadumkeag with the purpose of gaining land access to Olamon Island, a site sacred to the Wabanaki people, and building a year-round spiritual and cultural retreat with a focus on Wabanaki traditions. Noh has led kimchi making workshops to benefit the project.
At some point, the distinctions between dance, spirituality and community activism become blurred for Noh. In the end, they all come from the same place, for her.
“It’s all about connection,” she said. “It’s all coming from the same place.”