12YO from US turns to dance after her father was shot, leaving him paralysed

Jacqueline Smith (right) reads a citation from State Representative Donna Bullock honouring Shabaaz while Suri (second from left), stands alongside Wheeler (left) and Smith-Davis (centre). Photo: TNS

The young dancer had only learned the move a few days before, but no one would know looking at the photo. The 12-year-old is leaping effortlessly, three feet off the ground. Her arms are crossed over her chest in a “Wakanda” (from the movie Black Panther) salute, her long braids in full flight behind her.

One foot is tucked tightly underneath her while the other is pointed firmly toward the sky.

Her expression exudes strength and power. I was captivated.

Later, I would learn just how much was behind the look on Suri Shabazz’s face. But not before I was reminded of how small our city - the nation’s sixth largest - really is.

I contacted the B’Ella Ballerina Dance Academy, which moved from Spring Garden to Brewerytown in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the United States last year and had released the image that stopped me cold during a mindless social media scroll.

Suri (clockwise, top) finds solace in dance amidst her father's paralysis. Photo: Instagram/Bellaballerina_danceacademySuri (clockwise, top) finds solace in dance amidst her father's paralysis. Photo: Instagram/Bellaballerina_danceacademy

After asking to know more about the dancer, I discovered I had once written about her uncle, Eric Lilley, better known as Bus Driver Doo, a popular face in city transit.

Through him, I also knew Suri’s father, Siddeeq Shabazz, a leader in the city’s bicycling community whose inspiring story was captured by my colleague, Stephanie Farr.

Shabazz’s story took a grim turn last year when in the early hours of June 16, he was shot and paralysed during what he believes was a botched robbery attempt in University City in West Philadelphia. Police say the incident is still under investigation.

Shabazz's life was in full swing until his life-changing gunshot incident. Shabazz's life was in full swing until his life-changing gunshot incident.

Even in a city where violence seems to know no bounds, Shabazz’s shooting felt especially cruel.

Shabazz, now 34, had taken up biking early in the pandemic, first to help cure his cabin fever, and then to manage his grief after losing his mother to breast cancer. In short order, he became a talented and popular rider who championed increased representation of riders of colour. In 2021, he was featured on the cover of Bicycling Magazine.

He was literally going full speed ahead until the flash of gunfire on a dark Philadelphia street stopped him in his tracks.

I knew Shabazz had a large, supportive circle of friends and loved ones, including his Kings Rule Together (KRT) Cycling family. It is a Philadelphia-based cycling club.

Unyielding support

He recently got a hand-operated bike that he plans to take out when it’s warmer. But I also knew how few resources there are in our city for paralysed gunshot survivors, and the pressure such a tragedy puts on the person who was shot and their relatives. Like so many other people paralysed by gun violence in the city, Shabazz is struggling to find accessible housing.

I worried about him, but any time I reached out, he was upbeat and optimistic, grateful in ways people who have been through much less often aren’t.

He was the same way when I called to talk about his daughter - and the photo of her doing a modified version of the Italian pas de chat (classical ballet term meaning “step of a cat”) taken by photographer Dennis Alston, who was hired to capture images of the dancers from B’Ella Ballerina Dance Academy.

Shabazz remains upbeat and optimistic, despite his injury.  Photos: Instagram/Deeq_shabazzShabazz remains upbeat and optimistic, despite his injury. Photos: Instagram/Deeq_shabazz

As positive as Shabazz has been throughout his ordeal, he knows what happened to him has affected his only child.

“I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that when she’s around, I’m in the best shape I can be in the moment,” he said. But, he added, he also knows what happened to him has changed her perspective on the harsher parts of the world he and Suri’s mother, Nydera Wheeler, have worked hard to protect her from.

“I think it prepared her to see that things can happen to anyone.”

Finding strength

Suri was shy but poised when I met her at the studio she’d been attending since she was two. She was careful and thoughtful when she talked about her father. In many ways, not much has changed in their relationship, she said. The studio’s founder and owner, Roneisha Smith-Davis, tells her students that “dance is a way to tell your story.” Whatever your story is, she encourages, “utilise dance to help you.”

When Suri’s story took an unexpected turn, it was dance that helped take her mind off the tragedy.

“I like how when I’m here, all I have to think about is dance,” Suri said.

Before he was shot, Shabazz attended every one of his daughter’s dance banquets, every recital, and every father-daughter dance.

'I have to think about is dance,' says Suri. Photo: Instagram/Bellaballerina_danceacademy'I have to think about is dance,' says Suri. Photo: Instagram/Bellaballerina_danceacademy

He has been, Smith-Davis said, a consistent, supportive presence for his daughter and the school, and to honour him, they recently presented him with a surprise ceremonial proclamation.

He was shot just a few days before the yearly dance banquet last year. He could barely speak, but he was able to text a message to Suri’s mom: “Tell Suri to go to the banquet.”

Shabazz was still in the hospital a week later when the dance recital came around, but again, he had another message for his daughter: “I want you to go, and I want you to shine.”

Suri did both.

But then came the father-daughter dance a couple of weeks ago, and Shabazz decided it would be better not to take the focus away from the school or their students by trying to figure out how to get up the school’s steep staircase.

It was the first time they missed the dance in eight years.

I couldn’t help but note it as another enraging layer to the ongoing impact of gun violence in our city, beyond the bullets, and often far from public view.

When I mentioned that to Shabazz, he responded in typical form.

He could be angry, Shabazz told me. But what good would that do? After all, he was still alive, and still able to watch his daughter soar. – The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service

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Disability , Dance


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