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5 Black dancers who inspire us – and how they’re changing the game

Ebony Williams. Photo by Nikita Alba.
Ebony Williams. Photo by Nikita Alba.

Welcome to an incomplete, randomly ordered list of today’s Black dancers who inspire our socks off. These artist are world-class athletes, industry entrepreneurs and creative creatures down to their core.

Because Black excellence is everywhere, there are far too many names to fit on this list. Some names we’re skipping because you should absolutely know them by now – Misty Copeland, anyone? Alvin Ailey is an obvious answer. Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson of Complexions Contemporary Ballet – classic. And if you don’t know the names Debbie Allen or Camille A. Brown – start your research there. We’re featuring this upcoming generation of leading Black artists because they’re not only bringing talent to the scene, they’re continuing the evolution of the industry and changing the game entirely.

Kiira Harper – @kiiraharper

Not only is Kiira Harper an accomplished dancer who has performed with the likes of Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, not only has she been behind the choreographic process for singers like Lizzo, but she also travels the U.S. and the world teaching heels masterclasses and intensives to students who want to learn to move with the technique, the precision, the confidence she exudes in her shoes. Harper is another name on this list that’s up-ing the dance industry’s game with contributions that extend outside of dancing; she has her very own line of dance heels with brand Burju Shoes – her ‘Moment’ open toe lace-up bootie should be every serious dancer’s first dance stiletto. Harper has extended her expertise to the heels design team at Burju to make the most stable stilettos you’ll find. But if you want to learn the technique to properly wield that weapon, we highly recommend signing up for her heels class next time she tours near you.

Ebony Williams – @ebonywilliamsworld

Ebony Williams. Photo by Vanessa Walker.
Ebony Williams. Photo by Vanessa Walker.

We’ve had our eye on Ebony Williams ever since 2009, when she was one of the dancers in the “Single Ladies” music video. That led to Williams performing on tour with Beyoncé, followed by a whirlwind of other name brand accomplishments, including choreographing Alicia Keys’ promotional tour, choreographing Doja Cat’s 2021 VMA’s contemporary dance performance, and associate choreographing Warner Bros.’ In the Heights. But don’t get it twisted, this commercial star comes from concert dance roots. An alumna of Boston Ballet School and previously a company member of the now folded and greatly missed Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Williams has conquered everything over her career – classical, contemporary, funk, heels, hip hop. There are no boundaries or barriers between concert and commercial to her, and that’s why she’s on our list; she’s a queen of the dance industry as a whole.

Maxfield Haynes – @itsmaxfield

Maxfield Haynes. Photo by Steven Vandervelden.
Maxfield Haynes. Photo by Steven Vandervelden.

Maxfield Haynes made a name for themselves while dancing at Complexions, have continued their career with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and are currently in residency at the Metropolitan Opera as the ‘Principal Ballerina Bird’ in a production of The Magic Flute. Haynes will be the first non-binary, male-presenting dancer en pointe at the Met in this role. The nature of this ‘ballerina’ role is important to note; Haynes will be displaying the full force of their honed pointe technique, without comedy, farce or gimmicks. And they don’t plan on stopping there – they have their horizons set on guesting for companies around the country and the world, exploring and establishing their artistry in both the concert and commercials spheres. Haynes ushers in a new era to ballet. With Haynes at the helm, traditions are dwindling. Precise pointework. Lines for days. Societal expectations of gender, who?

Chloe Arnold – @chloearnoldtaps

You might know dancer and Emmy nominated choreographer Chloe Arnold from her tap band Syncopated Ladies (whose routines have been reposted by Beyoncé, leading to later gigs with the singer), or as the co-founder of the DC Tap Festival – both accomplishments achieved alongside her sister, Maud Arnold. You might also see Chloe’s name alongside Debbie Allen’s, as Allen discovered, mentored and then worked alongside Arnold later in her career. She was named in LeBron James and Nike’s campaign #STRONGEST, alongside other inspirational Black women like Simone Biles and Serena Williams. But most recently, you’ll see her named as the choreographer for the Apple TV+ movie Spirited, starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, whom she both taught to tap for the film. Arnold is bringing tap back to its rightful place at the center of American dance culture, which is why she’s on our list.

(FKA) Taja Riley – @tajariley

Best described as an artist activist, Taja Riley is definitely shaking up the dance industry. Outside of her many artistic achievements as a commercial dancer, she’s most well known for her advocacy in the 2022 Super Bowl case. When the production tried to “hire” dancers as volunteers to perform in the halftime show, Riley stepped in and got SAG-AFTRA involved. When the union only got negotiations as far as paying the dancers $15/hour (far below typical union rates), Riley stated her protest in a feature in Forbes. She’s now shaking up the industry again by publicly posting about her separation from both SAG-AFTRA and her talent agency on Instagram. She states that she has been dissatisfied with her agents and union’s handling of her contracts for the fees that she pays them, and that she has gained the knowledge, resources and team to now act as her own manager. In her latest IG post, she encourages dancers to “start treating yourself like the business that you are…operate like you’re 20 years in the game and you’re a Fortune 500.” In this new era of her career, she’s also doing an overhaul rebranding – right down to her name. FKA (Formerly Known As) Taja Riley is now SLAY $MILES.

By Holly LaRoche of Dance Informa.

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