Shenandoah Spotlight on Caitlin McAvoy



Caitlin McAvoy, photo provided

Caitlin McAvoy, from Hinton, Va., found a passion for performance at an early age, falling in love with dance at age 3.  At 16, her passion for performance developed into helping others through dance, teaching her own classes at the Harrisonburg Recreation Center where she began her dancing career.

Now, she’s a JMU grad with a degree in Musical Theater and her dancing career is taking her on frequent trips to New York City for auditions and training. She’s the definition of the up-and-coming artist, working a “survival” job and saving up cash for her next trip to the next audition.

If you ask her though, her true passion lies in helping others heal through dance therapy.

During the summer of 2014, Caitlin spent a week with 28 orphaned and abused girls in the war-torn city of Timisoara, Romania.  Revolution broke out in 1990 in Romania and the country has never fully recovered. The aftershocks of the violence are still being felt generations later. To help the area recover, Deborah House was established by Missio Link International to be a home of refuge for young girls affected by domestic and sexual abuse. JMU’s Hillcrest Scholarship for Honors students funded Caitlin’s trip after she learned about Deborah House from Harrisonburg Rotary Club member, Dr. Steve Wingfield.

Using dance as a form of therapy, Caitlin created a program to help the girls of Deborah House reconnect with their playfulness and creativity through the avenue of dance.  While Deborah House helped the young women on practical skills, they lacked the funding to expose the children to the Arts.

“It was incredibly serendipitous that I had the ability to offer what they needed,” Caitlin said.

Each day, Caitlin taught the Romanian girls dance therapy inspired games in order to create original choreography produced by the children in preparation for a public performance in the local town park. “The girls didn’t have families to invite—they were each other’s family – so having the community gather to appreciate their performance was awe-inspiring. I was overwhelmed to watch them on that stage. They had a story to tell and a platform on which to tell it,” said Caitlin.

The results of the performance were remarkable. “One girl, Madalina, came up to me after final bows and in her broken English called herself a ‘beautiful ballerina.’ That idea – that she saw herself as a beautiful being and a capable artist – that was what I wanted to accomplish.”

The concept of dance therapy is relatively new, and Caitlin is still searching for a community of like-minded dancers to help the movement expand. She would like to create a nonprofit organization to promote dance therapy as a way to treat young victims of abuse around the world, and the response has been positive in pursuing that dream. Not only has Caitlin found a passion to develop dance therapy more fully, she is currently in the process of recreating the program in local and international communities.

“Through this trip, I have discovered an untapped form of creativity and healing, and I want to be at the forefront of this movement,” said Caitlin.

Caitlin was mentored by many of JMU’s faculty in preparation for her trip and shares a very close bond with the School of Theatre and Dance. “Growing up in the Valley, I was fully prepared to leave the area in order to find rigorous training in the Arts. But I remember distinctly when JMU started building the Forbes Center in my 8th grade year and wondering what the result would be.” That result has been a highly revered Musical Theatre program named by the Princeton Review as one of the best on the East Coast.

As a student, Caitlin spent five years performing with JMU’s Summer Theatre in over 15 productions. “To this day I still have kids and parents come up to me and ask if I’m Charlotte from “Charlotte’s Web” or “Pinkalicious.”  I can’t help but smile every time.” She’s a performer at heart and would love to break into the stage and film scene in the City That Never Sleeps.  But ultimately she dreams of developing a platform to give a voice to the abused and forgotten in order to enact change around the world.

LAUREE STROUD PURCELL is an editorial consultant and writer for Living.

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