Love, belonging, and Black experiences in dance

Dancing up close with Tommie-Waheed Evans and softly, as I leave you

4 minute read
Six dancers in various combinations white and black tops and bottoms pose, a ring of light cast over them
waheedworks collaborators Kira Shiina, Song Aziza Tucker, Aliyah Clay, Joe González, Leah Friedman, and Breyanna Maples. (Photo by German Ayala Vazquez.)

The new work from choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans addresses love, belonging, and Black experiences through dance. Evans, the founder of Philadelphia’s waheedworks, has created dances for BalletX, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Philadanco, Ballet Memphis, University of the Arts, and more. He described an interest in exploring “the many ways that Black people can be, the many different layers and textures of brilliance” in Black art and lives. Love and belonging are central themes in softly, as I leave you, which will make its world premiere as Philadelphia Dance Projects’ 25th season finale.

Dancing inspiration

In building softly, as I leave you, Evans drew from his fellowship work with the Center of Ballet and the Arts and his research at the Jerome Robbins Library of Dance. These projects involved digital documentation, improvisation, conversations, and collaborations with performers, and dialogue with Donald Byrd, artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater. Byrd is known for pairing dance and theater with social justice, and his works consider issues such as climate change, gender identity, racism, and white supremacy. Evans cited Byrd’s Shards (1988) as an influence. An abstract work created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Shards deconstructs romanticism, and it marked a turning point in Byrd’s career. Evans also pointed to music as another source of inspiration, specifically Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak (2008) and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. (2017). He noted that these albums marked major achievements and career shifts for West and Lamar, just as Shards did for Byrd.

In addition, softly, as I leave you relates to Evans’s experience as a gay Black man and the universal desire to have a place in society. “We all just want to belong in this world and belong together,” he said. The concept of home offers a jumping-off point for accessing these themes in softly, as I leave you, as well as an opportunity for integration. “How can all these things, these past ways, become one? How can we do that? That’s how I came to softly,” Evans said.

The dance integrates various perspectives on and responses to these themes, because Evans created softly in collaboration with the dancers. He and the dancers met in the Koresh Dance Company studios, working on and off in 2021. In fall 2021, Evans began to combine his fellowship research on home with his research on Shards. The process of collaboration began with Evans bringing the ideas and theories from his research to the dancers so they could begin developing collectively. First, Evans and the dancers watched Shards together and discussed making a new dance to be in conversation with it. Next, they developed a glossary of terms—such as building, haunting, and making landscapes—and used them to build formations and perform tasks in an open-practice setting. The seven performers include current and former dancers from Philadanco, BalletX, and Dance Theater of Harlem, and some are Evans’s former students from University of the Arts.

True spirit

Evans noted the importance of spirituality and love in softly, as I leave you. “We’re living in such an HD time” in which “people are truly allowed to be who they are,” he said. “I want to create space that all these things can exist in.” These values are embedded in the radically collaborative process of making the dance. Evans described openness to learning from others and incorporating their ideas, and a trusting atmosphere in rehearsals. As he put it, “we all should be involved and feel seen and feel valued during the process” of developing the dance, “because then the work becomes personal.” A collaborative approach fosters investment in and ownership of the process and the product for everyone involved, and it can help the audience see themselves in the dance. Music, textures, images, themes, and more can be represented in bodies. Through dance, “we see connection through bodies and that makes us reflect on how we’re connecting with our bodies,” Evans observed. It can even lead viewers to reflect on their connections with other people, since “dance can help couples see their relationship differently.”

A grant from the Dance Program of the National Endowment for the Arts supported the development of softly, as I leave you. Evans expressed gratitude for the NEA grant, and to Philadelphia Dance Projects director Terry Fox, “the first person to present my work when I first started choreographing.” He added, “I’m grateful that we endured through the pandemic, and I know that June 10 and 11 are going to be beautiful evenings because of that.”

What, When, Where

softly, as I leave you. Choreography by Tommie-Waheed Evans. waheedworks, presented by Philadelphia Dance Projects. $15; $10 for the June 11 livestream. June 10 and 11, 2022, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Philadelphia. (215) 546-2552 or

Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required to attend in-person.


Christ Church Neighborhood House is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

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