Little did Shaun R Parry (BFA ’95) know when he deliberately slid beside the pretty woman in a computer store in early 2005 that the chance encounter would change the New York performing artist’s life—and eventually the lives of thousands of young people worldwide.
“We started talking and I asked her where she danced,” he says. “She wondered how I knew she was a dancer, and I explained that as a dancer myself, the way she stood and the way she moved revealed some intense training.”
Vania Marsías, as it turned out, was the prima ballerina of the Bellísima Ballet de Lima in Peru, and before their conversation ended, she invited Parry to teach classes in Peru after he finished a few bookings in New York City and a run of “Beauty and the Beast” in Atlanta.
Parry flew to Peru where he spent two weeks offering open classes as well as master classes to members of Peru’s National Ballet Company. As he prepared to return home, Marsìas suggested he see the real Peru. He climbed into her Escalade and was astonished when he saw the unrelenting slums of Ventanilla, 45 minutes away.
“I was at a loss for words, but amid the rags and shanties I also saw some kids break dancing and doing gymnastics while they begged in the streets.“ He ignored Marsìas’s cautions to stay in the car, hopping out with an offer to teach them dance.
“I wanted to help,” he says. “We arranged for them to come in, and I figured it would be ‘All right you guys, just line up and copy me. Follow the music. This will be easy.’”
“The guys went off in their corners, hoods over their heads, talking in street Spanish I didn’t understand,” Parry says. “For four hours I tried to pull them out and help them.”
He thought the next day would be better.
Parry thought, “I’m done. I should return to New York where I can actually accomplish something fruitful.” But while the arts is his absolute passion, his enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus Christ is even stronger, and he prayed and meditated on behalf of the street kids.
“After wrestling with it all night, I concluded maybe my main purpose was not to teach dance,” he says. “Maybe I was there to teach basic life skills we take for granted—things like respect and focus, and being able to concentrate for more than 30 seconds at a time, being able to work together as a team, setting goals and working toward them.”
He came in the next day with a different attitude and approach, and a conversation that went something like this:
“Okay, I’ve got this thing I’m going to teach you, but I want you—actually you know what? It’s so easy, my grandma can do this. But you don’t have what it takes. You can’t do it, so I’m not going to teach you.”
He exited, and only under great protests of “Yes we can,” did he return to teach them, in unison, without a single mistake, to put a finger in the air and move it for 30 seconds. If anyone laughed, moved their heads, or did anything besides the finger movement, they had to start over. They struggled, but after a while some became dedicated to the task and insisted the others follow suit. And they succeeded. They were ready to learn. Parry stayed three months, and each young man “pinky promised” he would finish school.
“The transformation was phenomenal,” Parry says. “You could not recognize them from beginning to end. Every single one kept his promise, finished school, and secured jobs. Many are performing professionally and teaching the next generation. I thought this had to be done throughout the world so I started Promethean Spark International, which teaches life skills to impoverished youth worldwide through training in the performance arts.”
It was an unexpected addition to his career, but then, Parry’s life has been a cycle of expecting the unexpected and then embracing it. He never expected to hide from guerillas in the jungle while teaching youth. He never imagined himself in the arts, let alone Broadway and major ballet companies. And he certainly never imagined he would be the model for a series of photographs portraying Jesus Christ. He says his life has been “impossible dreams I didn’t know enough to dream about.”
From childhood Parry has grappled with feelings of inferiority and self-doubt he tries to mask. “I knew I was really awkward,” he explains. “I was odd. I did not fit in, but I was a go-getter. I threw myself into everything I did 100 percent, including my studies.”
Parry devoured his course work, taking additional classes during lunch hours and free periods. He could not understand why so many other students were content to just hang out in the halls.
He entered BYU as a zoology major, and although he was doing well in his classes, a professor pulled him aside and explained that his choice was leading him toward research and that, with his personality, he needed to tune it toward something involving people, maybe pre-med. He also suggested a few fine arts courses.
“Okay,” Parry says. “I decided I would become the singing, dancing, doctor.”
The university was introducing a music/dance/theater major that required auditions. Parry attended them even though he had never sung, danced, or acted beyond a show choir in high school.
He did not make the program.
“I really should apologize for that audition,” he says. “They (the adjudicators) explained that I had raw talent but I was not developed enough to reach the level of proficiency they needed by graduation. They did, however, let me take a couple of major classes.”
Sensing an opportunity, Parry enrolled and before the semester ended drama professor Charles Whitman (BA ’57, MA ’58) approached him let him know that the faculty had met and said that in all their time teaching, they had never seen anyone make as much progress as he had in such a short time. They decided to let him re-audition. This time he was accepted.
He tried being a pre-med and MDT major but the load was unmanageable. Parry grappled with the idea of dropping MDT and returning to premed, because he aspired to medicine all his life and told himself, “This is ridiculous. Who turns away from steady employment for a life of running from audition to audition? After much pondering and even more prayer, he decided he was such a man, and his resume, if listed in its entirety, would fill the alumni section of BYU Magazine.
“Shaun doesn’t really give himself enough credit,” says Randall W. Boothe (MM ’79), director of BYU’s Young Ambassadors and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications. “He has always been very talented. He just didn’t have a lot of experience in performance. It was just a matter of time until he could get his chance to bump off the rough edges and become savvy about navigating through the world of performing arts. He’s a fine actor and singer, and he’s an amazing, powerful, masculine dancer.”
Boothe also applauds Parry’s heart. “Shaun definitely knows how to reach and connect with people and has been willing to place himself in many dangerous situations just because he knows there is good that needs to be accomplished through the performing arts. He is a rare individual.”
Parry continues to expect the unexpected. He once stood several hours in a New York musical audition line, for example, only to realize he was in the wrong place. It was for the celebrated Martha Graham Dance Company. He knew little about the Graham dance method—he didn’t even know the troupe warm-ups—but willing to watch, follow others, and appear foolish, he auditioned. Several rounds into the audition process, he was selected.
Parry also never really expected to be homeless, which he was . . . sort of. He was performing in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and couldn’t afford the rent, so during the show’s run he stayed in a men’s homeless shelter. One requirement was reading aloud from the Bible, and with his trained voice, he stood out. The other men started calling him “Shakespeare.”
Most recently he grew his hair long; professional photographer Lois Colton asked him to be the model for her “Meditation of Christ” series, and in January he spent time in a foreign country doing life coaching with trafficked teenage girls. He continually embraces other opportunities, from carrying an Olympic torch to speaking at the World Parliament on Spirituality.
“Even as young as age 10, while I didn’t fit in, I knew I wanted to leave a legacy. I thought I needed to be open to opportunities and let the Spirit guide me. If hashtags had existed when I was a child mine would have been—and still would be—life is an adventure.”
Charlene Renberg Winters (MA ’96)