Dance Professor Named 2021 Guggenheim Fellow

July 21, 2021

Following a rigorous selection process earlier this year, UArts Assistant Professor of Studio Practice Tommie-Waheed Evans was named a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in choreography. Evans was one of 184 artists, writers, scholars and scientists selected from a pool of more than 3,000 applications. His selection recognizes what the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation notes as exceptional creative ability in the arts.

Evans’ application was focused on Sermon on the Mount, a piece he constructed over a year with his Philadelphia-based dance incubator, waheedworks. Through dance, it explores the intersection of queer, spiritual and welcoming spaces.

The work is not an outright criticism of the church’s rejection of queer themes and homosexuality, Evans says, despite the title’s religious connotations. Instead, he says it asks, “How can we make a space where everyone is welcome and can feel the positivity and light that happens inside a church without it being church?” Sermon on the Mount also reflects Evans’ studio practice at University of the Arts, where he encourages students to feel liberated and safe in who they are.

Evans discovered dance at a young age while growing up amid racial strife, earthquakes and gang violence in Los Angeles. Evans’ mother had previously enrolled him in music and singing lessons, but when he attended a friend’s dance recital at age 13, the artform resonated with him deeply.

“At the end of the day, dance chose me,” Evans said. “I tell the students, ‘If I didn’t have dance, I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be doing during this time, this pandemic.’ It is the practice inside of dance, even though it’s on Zoom, that I’m able to see a future and to mentally be okay.”

Inspired by his friend’s performance, Evans enrolled in a family-run dance studio that offered ballet, jazz and tap lessons. A few years later, at age 18, Evans joined several classmates as they auditioned for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center’s summer program in New York. Despite his admitted ambivalence toward auditioning, he was the only dancer in his peer group to receive a scholarship to train with the internationally known and historic Black dance company.

Evans’ interest in choreography was kindled in high school, as he worked on a piece under the guidance of his mentor and teacher, Karen McDonald, who now serves as academy director of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles. His infatuation grew when he came to Philadelphia and engaged with Philadanco, when the company’s founder and former director, Joan Myers Brown, encouraged Evans to continue exploring his voice and vision.

When Evans left Philadanco in 2014 and began teaching at UArts, he was dealing with arthritis in his hips that required surgery. Donna Faye Burchfield, dean of the School of Dance at UArts, took him under her wing and supported him during that time. 

“I just felt like I was in this space all alone, and she saw me and was like, ‘Come, sit at my table and let’s talk,’” Evans said.

Burchfield presented Evans with new resources and artists, took him to performances and introduced him to new people. Those experiences and connections, Evans says, convinced him to sit down and pen an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He credits his selection this year to the support he’s experienced throughout his artistic journey, from his family in Los Angeles to his colleagues in Philadelphia. 

“It’s a feeling I’ve never felt,” Evans says of his fellowship. “Like, anticipation for what’s to come. It’s validating. But it’s a moment when I’ve been able to really see the people who have helped me get here and feel their excitement.”

A waist-up shot of Assistant Professor Tommie-Waheed Evans who is dressed in an orange shirt and dancing with his eyes closed and his arms swept to one side and his head to the other.
Photo by German Ayala Vazquez BFA ’20 (Photography)