Miami Stories

Miami Stories: Artist Pioneer Winter celebrates life through dance

Portrait of Pioneer Winter dancing on water.
Portrait of Pioneer Winter dancing on water.

On Sundays when I was little, my dad and I would take the tandem and bike from our home in North Miami to the beach. Most of the time, my legs were just along for the ride and rested lightly on the rotating pedals, allowing my dad to do the hardest pedaling. With the 19-mile round-trip, I preferred to save my energy for galloping through the waves.

I started tap dancing when I was four, and it was always more fun to shuffle and lindy through the waves. The flapping of my feet struck the water, and resonated with even more satisfying sound than the beat of metal taps on a wooden dance floor. It was always a celebration, dancing.

While my dad and his dad were football players at my age, I was never interested in sports. There was, and still is, something magical that happens when I step out onto a stage. The feeling is a strange cross between everlastingness and fleetingness. And somewhere in between the ness, I have always remained caught. For me — much more than the acknowledgement that dance is a language and that dance is a representation of everyday experiences — dance is much like life: Some days it feels like forever, and one day there comes a day when there are no more days. In this way, dance is also a measure of time. And growing up, I spent most of my time dancing in studios and schools throughout Miami. This love for dance has helped me through many difficult times, including the loss of my mom when I was nine.

One of the best memories I have of my mom is standing on the tops of her feet as she danced around the living room. I remember the feeling of shifting from one foot to the other, the continuity of her movements and my role as her abiding partner, neither controlling nor directing the dance but a part of it nonetheless. After she passed away, I would stand in the middle of the living room, close my eyes and try to recreate our waltz. It was never the same.

My mom started me in dancing. Once a week, we’d all get in the car together and drop her off at an adult tap class in North Miami. My dad and I would then continue on to Donavan’s Bar on Northwest Seventh Avenue. Donavan’s had billiards and French fries, and we’d hang out there for the hour or so of her class. Eventually, I grew curious of my mom’s tap class and began to stay and watch. This, of course, led to my being enrolled in dance myself. It was strange at first — there is a specificity to dance studios, and it is just not the same as leaping through ocean waves or whirling into dizziness at home. I soon caught on.

I am very close with my dad, and for a few years after my mom died, he, too, became closer with his. Around this time, my dad signed me up for a football summer camp. I tried football, but I prayed for rain every day we had practice. Most of the other boys at Bunche Park already understood football and played it in their own backyards, much how I practiced dance in mine. I remember doing sprints — that was the one thing for which I was passable. Never mind that there was a formation, that we had to keep our knees up, and that there was a ball that had to be caught. I could run without tripping on my own two feet. Aside from one kid I befriended with a perpetually runny nose, who could also burp on command, the entire experience was pointless. I have a faint memory of my dad bringing my grandpa Lou to one of the practices (when I had been unsuccessful with my rain invocation); and as terrible as I was, my grandpa seemed far more pleased with my mediocre football than my love for dance.

A few years later, my grandpa passed away. And for another year or so after that, his ashes and wristwatch waited on the mantle. After watching the movie Around the Bend with Christopher Walken and Michael Caine, my dad and I awoke from our moratorium. We walked outside and stood on the dock behind our house to bid farewell to grandpa Lou. After minutes of silence, my dad turns to me and says, “Give us a little soft shoe, son.”

So there I stood holding my grandfather’s ashes in a cardboard box and tapping out Tea for Two. I felt highly inappropriate doing this, believing this ceremony required a more solemn reflection. I noticed for the first time just how cathartic dancing is for me. The tapping out of the rhythms brought me back to my best memories of my mom, and suddenly this was not so much about solemnity as it was of celebration. Celebrating life that can be over as quickly as a dance. And it is in this precious fragility I now find my place as a dance artist and choreographer.

Much like my earliest experiences with dance, I am interested in creating dance for non-traditional and unexpected locations. We have plenty throughout Miami — discreet places we drive past everyday without ever knowing of them. I was recently awarded a Knight Arts Challenge grant for a project called Grass Stains that will help commission and mentor other artists interested in creating work that highlights Miami’s hidden spaces. As I continue to change as an artist, my early memories of growing up in North Miami inform my art making and remind me of those in between moments, of everlastingness and fleetingness, the dances that have ended and those whose music hasn’t yet begun.

Submit your own best ideas for bringing the community together with the arts by Feb. 23 for a chance to win a 2015 Knight Arts Challenge grant. Knightarts.org.

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