Tommie-Waheed Evans, MFA '16

October 24, 2022

When a crushing diagnosis threatened to end his career as a dancer, Evans flourished on a new path that unlocked his creative expression.

Tommie-Waheed Evans, MFA '16, found dance by accident.

While growing up in Los Angeles, Evans sang in community and church choirs. As a sophomore in high school, he transferred to Hamilton High School to study voice in its Academy of Music and Performing Arts. There, he learned that musical theatre majors could take dance instead of gym classes, and he’d always hated gym classes.

“I had an interest in musical theatre, and it combined all those worlds.”

tommie-waheed evansThus, a dancer was born. His second act, as a choreographer, was an accident too — or, as some would call it, turning lemons into lemonade. Evans worked as a professional dancer for 15 years until he began to experience pain in his hips. At 33 years old, he was diagnosed with arthritis in his hips.

“I was really devastated and at this crossroads no one wants to be at.”

Choreography had long been part of his artistic life, but he didn’t think about making it his profession, despite early praise. He’d choreographed dances in high school, and a teacher at his studio told him that he has “a really interesting way on how you want dancers to move,” he recalled. As part of the company of Philadanco, a Philadelphia dance group, he participated in “Danco on Danco” where dancers choreographed each other. He also loved watching choreographers work and reading about their process through their books and memoirs.

“I kept that in the back of my mind but never really concentrated on it,” he said. He thought again about the idea of choreography. After attending a graduation ceremony at the University of the Arts, where he was an adjunct professor, he also knew he wanted to earn a degree — he had skipped college in order to dance. He turned to Jacksonville University because of its reputation and alumni and applied for the program based on his life experience. “I just felt like with my condition, all signs were leading me to Jacksonville,” he said.

At JU, he flourished, and earned his Master’s of Fine Arts in 2016. After graduating, he took a full-time position at University of the Arts and is now an assistant professor there. Since 2004, he has created more than 50 original dance works, including for BalletX, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Philadanco, Verb Ballets, Ballet Memphis, University of the Arts, Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and Louisville Ballet, among others. His accolades are just as plentiful: Princess Grace Honoraria Award in Choreography, New Music Project Grant, Howard Gilman Foundation Fellowship, Joffrey Ballet Winning Works, and Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency.

In 2020, he was a Center of Ballet and Arts resident fellow, which he followed up with a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. The grant allowed him to create "softly, as I leave you," new work for his waheedworks dance troupe, which formed in 2006. First performed as the Philadelphia Dance Works’ season finale in June, the show is an example of how Evans is “experimenting with colliding different sounds,” he said. “What are the new ways we can hear something or reimagine or distort it?” It’s also about Evans’ experience as a gay Black man in America, and the desire to have a place in that world.

tommie-waheed evans dancers

Grant funding has also allowed him to work in a more deliberate, time-intensive way on one project versus doing freelance choreography work, which sometimes meant jumping quickly from project to project. “At this time in my career, I felt proud that I was able to financially be able to do that. I was comfortable and did not have to rush or have someone telling me I couldn’t spend time on this work,” he said.

Production of "softly, as I leave you" was delayed by the pandemic, which Evans said was frustrating but ultimately made the production better. “If the work was done two years ago, it wouldn’t have been called this and it would have had a different tone,” he said. “I was able to really find the idea I really needed to pursue.”

The Philadelphia performance of "softly, as I leave you" in June was sold out and critically acclaimed, and Evans hopes it will be performed in New York City next year. He’s also working with several dance companies, including the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, on new works that will premiere in 2023 and beyond.

Evans said his time in Jacksonville was a key part of his development as an artist, especially through hearing guest teachers like dancer and choreographer Alonzo King, who “just cracked my world open,” Evans said. “The total experience of the Master of Fine Arts program really helped me to figure out my way to understand the process, research and crafting of dance. I was already a dancer, but it helped me extend all the ways I could do it."

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