LGBTQ South Florida

Miami dance scene’s renaissance man and young LGBTQ leader

Pioneer Winter performing his piece “Host” with Alberto Pena Jr. (back to camera), which was staged last March.
Pioneer Winter performing his piece “Host” with Alberto Pena Jr. (back to camera), which was staged last March. /Mitchell Zachs

Choreographer, performer and producer Pioneer Winter may be the busiest person on the Miami dance scene. Last year, he ran so many different projects that it sometimes seemed as if he’d cloned himself. He directed a site-specific dance series, a dance film festival, and an arts program for queer youth, and taught full-time, all while completing a master’s degree and a full-length performance. His latest work, “Forced Entry and Other Love Stories,” premieres Thursday at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood.

But growing up, Winter didn’t plan to be a dancer.

Born and raised in Miami, he discovered dance as a young boy when his mother dragged him along to the weekly tap lessons she was taking.

Winter eventually started ballet, tap and jazz classes himself. He turned out to have great potential: flexibility, discipline and good feet. Throughout middle and high school, he studied at Miami City Ballet on full scholarship. But despite his talent, he never thought dancing would be more than a hobby.

“I never really said I want to be a dancer when I grow up,” says Winter, 29. “All through high school, I thought I was going to get a PhD or be an attorney.”

Ballet left him cold. “I was never passionate about the classics, or the macho male archetype of the ballet dancer,” he says. “I hate dance as pure diversion. I really wanted that human experience—to understand my own condition.”

He declined a spot at Miami’s New World School of the Arts, choosing a more academic route. In 2009 he graduated from FIU’s Master of Public Health program with a specialty in epidemiology, and began working full-time for a nonprofit organization that did HIV testing and prevention.

Yet he never stopped dancing. He continued performing with multiple companies in South Florida. In 2010, he created a public awareness piece on HIV/AIDS. And gradually, he realized that contemporary dance had as much political and social potential as his work in public health. Frustrated by the time he spent in the office, he decided to go full-time into dance.

“Dance is a way for me to express myself emotionally because I handle things differently than other people do,” he says.

“I can talk about anything on stage. A friend of mine’s mother passed away recently and I should have been the first one to comfort him. I didn’t know how to handle that. But I can create a work about it and talk really freely with an audience about it. I feel like performance is this language that I have.”

From the beginning, he went for socially charged issues. An early work, 2011’s “Phallussy,” mocked conventional gender identities while exploring vulnerability in relationships.

Six years later, Winter continues to produce challenging performances that speak to the human experience.

He rehearses in a small room at O Cinema in Wynwood. On a typical day, he leaves the house before sunrise and comes home after dark. He spends hours a day writing grants, cutting checks, taking calls and promoting an extensive roster of projects.

His discipline is evident in the rigorous twice-daily workout routine that keeps his body tightly cut and performance-ready. And his eyes reveal the intense focus he brings to his dizzying array of creative and other projects.

His Pioneer Winter Collective runs Project LEAP, an interdisciplinary creative program for queer youth, which introduces LGBTQ teens to the arts as an agent of social change. In 2016, he produced Grass Stains, an initiative which commissioned new site-specific work from Miami choreographers. He just finished his first year heading the ScreenDance Miami festival, an annual event sponsored by Tigertail Productions. And he still has time to teach a full course load at the FIU Honors College. Last spring he graduated with an MFA from Jacksonville University and presented his thesis as a full-length performance, “Host.”

I hate dance as pure diversion. I wanted that human experience - to talk about my own condition. I can talk about anything onstage.

Choreographer Pioneer Winter

Octavio Campos, a veteran of Miami’s queer performance scene, has watched Winter mature as both an artist and community leader. “He’s a very ambitious, motivated artist on so many levels,” says Campos, who coached the younger man in a 2013 autobiographical solo that marked a creative turning point for Winter.

“I gave him his first solo, “Pie Solo,” and I really pushed him to go deeper,” Campos says. “I kind of feel like I created a little monster, and he’s really going for it.”

Campos admires Winter’s active role as an intergenerational ambassador in the Miami queer community. And the way that Winter is not afraid to confront assumptions about queer relationships, or challenging issues onstage.

“We are there to be a reflection of the times,” Campos says. “I believe that’s what art is for. If artists aren’t doing that, I think they’re not doing their job. And that is not always beautiful.”

Winter gives visibility to bodies, voices and experiences typically excluded from the mainstream. He does not limit himself to the queer experience.

For “Forced Entry” he assembled a non-conventional cast of performers who differ in age, sexual orientation, and body type. Another current piece, “Gimp Gait,” is a duet with disabled performer Marjorie Burnett, a longtime member of Karen Peterson and Dancers.

In the process of creating a piece, Winter often coaches his performers to access the pains and struggles of their own personal experience. “Forced Entry,” for example, explores themes of drug addiction, AIDS, broken families, promiscuity, infidelity and divorce. The title sounds aggressive, but for Winter it describes the difficulty of navigating another person’s wounds and traumas. At its core, “Forced Entry” is about love.

Lise-Lotte Pitlo, one of the performers, describes Winter’s creative process. “He’s really digging into our personal histories,” she says. “I really trust him. I don’t ever feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. He’s good at creating a safe environment.”

Sometimes Winter tackles social issues more directly. Pitlo recalls a performance based on stories of people with HIV/AIDS, for an audience of college students. “The performance had a whole different meaning and intention,” she says. “It was really more about opening up the conversation about AIDS.”

Yet Winter rejects the title of activist.

“I use art as a tool to motivate others in a similar position on the periphery,” he says. “Art is a sneak attack disguised as entertainment.” is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.

If you go

▪ What: Pioneer Winter's "Forced Entry and Other Love Stories"

▪ When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

▪ Where: Miami Light Project’s Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami

▪ Info: $30 to $75,