Shona Dunlop MacTavish is the mother of modern dance in New Zealand. She is also an ex-missionary, pioneer of Christian dance, amateur anthropologist, teacher and inspirational speaker. Her life story is remarkable. Her father was a Presbyterian theologian and Professor of Philosphy, her mother unconventional and high-spirited.
When widowed in the early 1930s, Maud Dunlop swept Shona and her brother off to tour Europe. The gypsy-like family travelled extensively (and dramatically) Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Poland...
Shona studied languages and joined the Bodenwieser Ballet in Vienna, a modern expressive company in the vanguard of the European 'New Wave' of dance. Hitler condemned the entire modern movement as decadent, and when the Nazis invaded Austria, Shona and the predominantly Jewish company were forced to flee.
Alone in Vienna, at seventeen, Shona had Jewish families on their knees begging her to procure visas for them to escape the Nazis. Her diaries from this time are unnervingly reminiscent of Anne Frank's.
The Bodenwieser Company travelled to South America where Shona became a principal dancer. They toured Colombia in incredibly primitive conditions, sailing down the Magdalena River, visiting tribal villages and dancing in bullrings to over fifty thousand people in Bogota. Bodenwieser and her remaining students then moved to Sydney during the war years, where they set up the first modern dance company in Australia. And it was here that Shona met her husband, Donald MacTavish, a Canadian Presbyterian missionary who was heading to the Mission Fields of China.
They were engaged in five days, married in three weeks. Shona effectively gave up her dancing career. In China they were soon caught between warring factions as Mao-Tse-tung's army moved south, proclaiming that there was no place for foreigners or aid workers in Communist China. They escaped on one of the last planes out of Peking to Taiwan, where they worked for a year. Their next posting was to Lovedale, the foremost educational institute for Black students in South Africa, where they had a family and worked for five years, battling the increasingly pernicious apartheid laws. Then tragedy struck Donald died of cancer, leaving Shona widowed with three small children. She returned to Dunedin. It was 1956. Not a revolution in sight.
Pulling her life back together was a long, hard struggle, but Shona managed to make ends meet by setting up her own modern dance studio the first in New Zealand. Soon she made a name for herself as a choreographer and dance teacher of national significance, creating amongst others, the first ballet based on a Maori legend Pania of the Reef. She also became controversial for promoting the idea of dance as an expression of spirituality something that should be embraced, not rejected by the conservative New Zealand churches. She travelled widely internationally, studying dance from other cultures, especially in Asia where she spent a year as Professor of Dance at Silliman University in the Philippines. She has created dances with parishioners, prisoners, the Hell's Angels and the Archbishop of Canterbury as she says, 'if it moves, I'll dance with it!'
Dancers throughout New Zealand recognise Shona's immense contribution to a New Zealand dance style she spent a season teaching at the NZ School of Dance in Wellington; and within the church opinion is probably still divided. Her most recent piece for an ecumenical conference of churches in 1996 was the dance 'A Question of Love', depicting a loving lesbian relationship and challenging the churches to accept homosexual clergy.
Shona still travels, attends conferences overseas and takes a dance class every Saturday morning, without fail. She is enormously energetic, perceptive about artistic, social, religious and philosophical issues and, quite simply, inspirational.