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Rising Stars: Meet Shani Jones

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shani Jones.

Hi Shani, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?
My story is one of perseverance, inner transformation and advancement. I come from a very big, loving and altruistic family of seven. I got started at age five in the garage of our family home in Canoga Park, dancing to Fela Kuti and a massive catalog of blues records. The multi-instrumentalist and activist created sounds that naturally birthed my first love: dance. In every note played, I felt so alive, then I went on to jazz and salsa. Throughout this, a wave of relief swept over me. Dance made me feel invincible. There are many musicians, bands and artists whose creations inspired my passion for this art. To be consumed by such emotions at that age, I imagined I could do anything as long as I was dancing. For as long as I can remember, dance has had a special place in my heart. As a kid, producing holiday talent shows for the family, I made sure we had the lights, the costumes, the setlist, music rolling, and a fabulous emcee to bring the joy. My favorite was creating choreography to my favorite music videos.

During this time, I felt so free to express myself, and in response, those who viewed it shared my sentiment. I attribute much of my earlier performances to my informal training at Buddhist activities. I am a second-generation Buddhist practitioner and member of the Soka Gakkai International, a value-creating lay Buddhist organization based on Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism. It was there, as well as at Martha Gibbs Dance School, where my dancing debuted at events like the Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Los Angeles, the LGBT parades (as it was called then) in Weho and Long Beach, several LA Marathons from 1993-2000, and and not to forget the family and youth cultural festivals throughout Southern California in junction with SGI-USA – promoting peace, culture and education. I had always imagined myself in entertainment. Sometimes I would fantasize about creating performances and dancing at major events like the Super Bowl halftime show, the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games or the Soul Train music awards. Years later, I went off to college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and changed my major four times before finally deciding on dance. I had considered furthering my education in income-driven careers like business or medicine, but my heart wasn’t in any of them. They all came in second to my passion.

At the same time, I lacked technical training in dance and was intimidated by the modern dance and ballet at the university. When I dance, it’s from the heart and with passion. I embraced these dance forms and gained deeper appreciation for world dance. I learned to transform my doubts and be optimistic about developing my skills. I was ready to face these challenges head on. Through earnest efforts and determined spirit, my first professional gig was a mini-musical called iChoose, a youth-empowerment movement and anti-bullying initiative designed to help put young people back in control of their own inner experience of life. We debuted the show in Hawaii, traveling to 10 high schools. Our performance included interacting with youth while utilizing music, dance, rap and role-playing to encourage dialogues about forms and causes of bullying. As a performer, this experience opened me up to the many possibilities of being an entertainer for peace and community-building. After graduation, I moved back to my hometown in the San Fernando Valley to pursue my career full-time. To my surprise, this proved to be a greater challenge than I had imagined.

Over the next decade, I struggled to awaken to my purpose as an artist for peace. I found myself overwhelmed by my own insecurities. It was my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, who would encourage me to never give up. “Even if you think you’re hopeless and incapable, I know you’re not. I have not the slightest doubt that each of you has a mission. Though others may disparage you, please know that I respect you, I believe in you. No matter what circumstances you now face, I have absolute confidence that a wonderful future awaits you” (Discussions on Youth, World Tribune Press, 2010). Overcoming my fears and lack of confidence, I found a renewed spirit and continued to perform live shows throughout Los Angeles. I even booked a commercial. The more appreciation I had for my life and my environment, the more I valued the hardships I had endured. My last live performance was at The Magic Castle on New Year’s Eve 2019. I never imagined that would be my last performance in 2020.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
No smooth road for me. However, as the saying goes, “When the roads get bumpy, real girls know how to bounce.” I’ve faced homelessness and decline. I had to take on many jobs unrelated to the arts. I compared my success to others and looked down on myself for not achieving more. I fell into a deep depression, questioning whether I had made the best decision. I dived into my Buddhist practice of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo to bring forth my innate wisdom and “Buddhability.” I continued in high spirits, determined that all my efforts are not only a cause for my own happiness but also the happiness of others.

At that time, I decided, if I was going to have a “regular job,” then I would leave my corporate job and find a nonprofit that supports the arts. I am happy to report I have been part of such an organization—a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to struggling entertainment artists—for three years now. I remain diligent to perform, applying at talent agencies, taking voice lessons and participating in local events. My goal is to get representation in order to open up more possibilities. This year I decided to double my efforts to advance my performing arts career. I was sad to see the sudden change of events due to the introduction of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was my hope to create a space where seniors and children can dance and let their own creativity flow. I decided to keep my day job at the nonprofit and sharpen my artistic skills. As a result, I have been accepted at an award-winning acting school. I get to create with many artists from around the world. Today, as many uncertainties plague our community, being an artist is more difficult than ever.

Of course, I would like to be performing and creating full-time. I have continued my mission as a young women’s Buddhist leader in my community and help as many people as possible. Through this process, I have had more appreciation for my struggles. Currently, I am looking to find a safe, social-distancing platform to engage seniors and children to dance to their hearts’ content. I am also renewing my determination to pursue my career as a dancer, singer and actor for peace. I would like to perform more encouraging works of art that inspire hope and change in others, especially youth. Being an artist can sometimes be self-absorbing. Showing up for the people and creating an environment that values the sanctity of life through the arts is the best way to carry out my mission. I do not know what future this pandemic brings. However, I am confident the current path I am on is leading me toward victory. I will not be defeated!

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I am most proud to inherit a never-give-up spirit from my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda. The mentor and disciple relationship is the most auspicious relationship one can have. It is a bond that not many in my generation are familiar with. Daisaku Ikeda is a Buddhist leader, peacebuilder, prolific writer, poet and educator as well as the founder of a number of cultural, educational and peace research institutions around the world. As a Buddhist practitioner, I’ve known Ikeda Sensei my entire life as a leader of peace. His own relationship with his mentor, Josei Toda, is a prime example of what can manifest when both unite for the same goal. I, too, have a mission to rid the world of suffering. Indeed, this is no easy task. My life as a disciple carrying out my mentor’s vision and encapsulating it as my own has brought many benefits throughout my life.

I am most proud of my perseverance. Another name for a Buddha is “one who can endure.” I strongly believe it takes stamina to carry out your personal mission in this world. I have an iron clad support system comprising family and good friends. I am in debt to my parents for their reinforcing love and genuine support of me. Without their support, I might have continued on a negative downward spiral of indecisiveness. To have a good friend is the greatest of all treasures. Due to their support, I have continued on my path with optimism and joy in my heart. I am most proud to be a black woman who has been raised by strong black women with an abundance of black joy. I am also proud of my diverse dance style, incorporating modern dance and ballet, hip hop, jazz, ballroom, hula, Tahitian and Bharatanatyam.

How do you think about happiness?
Dancing from the heart makes me the happiest, especially when I find myself in a negative headspace. Listening to my favorite drum and bass beats open up my heart to optimistic possibilities. I am happiest when working on creative projects that contribute to the community, whether it be social justice and inequality issues or peace festivals. This is because we cannot become happy until everyone is happy. It is my fortune to be from a diverse community of people in the SFV. I understand that this does not mirror everyone’s upbringing. I find myself exemplifying tolerance and showing the purest compassion toward others’ suffering. I have participated in many activities that have unified the community regardless of identity or social status. I would love to create spaces where performances can impact hope and change in more communities. I love to perform! Our lives are a drama. So why not enact a grand drama of inner transformations, community outreach, and personal advancement? It makes me happy to see others happy. If there is one person who is unhappy or is suffering due to circumstances, I have a personal responsibility to share hope and a determination to never give up. In my professional endeavors, I would be so happy to be signed by a talent agency and premiere in film and television rooted in peace and justice for black lives.

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Image Credits:

Photography credits @vjtidwell for the personal photo and the first two from the additional photos.

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