By Lee Schoenbart
Through half a life slightly more modern than the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," Robyn Shifren of Carmel Valley danced for ballet companies from her native South Africa to London, survived a seven-time rollover car crash that ended her career, then gathered up her family fleeing a failed attempt on their lives to start anew in Southern California.
To paraphrase Sondheim's lyrics, through good times and bum times, Shifren's seen them all, and she's still here.
She started ballet at 3 years old. Then, at 17, she gained entrance into London's Royal Ballet School and earned a role in its company. Shifren danced with South Africa's NAPAC Ballet from the time she was 22 until the car accident happened just before her 30th birthday. Following a decade of rehabilitation recovering from the accident, Shifren and her family left the violence of their homeland for America.
As with the diversity of programs children enjoy in schools today, Shifren's experience decades ago could be considered enlightened because she was able to take ballet as a graduating subject.
"After that, I was picked to go to the Royal Ballet School in London for what was supposed to be one year, but after three months, I was selected to join the permanent company, which was pretty miraculous in itself because I held a South African passport," Shifren recalled.
A new ballet company was forming in South Africa called NAPAC — Natal Performing Arts Council, and it piqued Shifren's interest.
"What was unique about this company was it was the first fully multi-racial dance company in the country," she said. "You have to understand that, in the 1980s, this was a big deal because black people couldn't even sit in a restaurant let alone touch bodies and dance in the theater together.
"And I felt it (the opportunity) was a calling that I needed to do my best for what felt like a politically aware family, so I left the Royal Ballet and I went to join the Nepal Performing Arts Council and I was probably happiest in this place," Shifren said. "I felt like a ground-breaker, like Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus."
During her time with the company, she was driving to Durbin when a tire blew out and the car rolled seven times. Shifren fractured her C6 vertebra (an injury to the spinal cord at the level of the sixth cervical vertebra is referred to as a C6 injury, "C" for cervical). She had a dislocated shoulder, broken ribs and was covered in blood.
For seven weeks, Shifren lay on her back with holes drilled in her head, which was attached to a caliper and weights, followed by a body brace for four months that she slept in and bathed in. She no longer had use of all the muscles in her right arm or leg. But when the doctor insisted she learn how to write left-handed, Shifren fought back.
"Don't you tell me what I can and cannot do," she railed.