Rhythmic. The perfect word to describe Patdro Harris. His background in music, his approach to dance and choreography, his styles of teaching and directing, they all come back to rhythm. “Even before I knew what they were, they made sense to me,” says Harris of rhythms. And it shows, even in the way he speaks.
Harris’ reputation precedes him: lead dancer and world tour choreographer for Stevie Wonder; choreographer for A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway; renowned from the U.S. to Japan; Helen Hayes award-winner; celebrated in The New York Times; the list goes on. Amazingly, none of those accolades show, beyond a sense of presence and confidence in who he is and what he has to offer. He perfectly embodies the idea that “what you do can’t be more important than who you are,” a life lesson he took away from his time working with the great Stevie Wonder.
The Cheers with the Boos
In his junior year of college at Alabama State, where he was studying music and theater, he decided pursue a career as a professional artist. He told his mother that he wanted to go to Atlanta to learn dance to supplement his music and theater experience. Her simple question: Can you take the boos with the cheers?
He took some time to think about it, decided he could pay his bills, buy some “grits and cheese,” and that yes, he could take it if people didn’t like him. With that, he moved to Atlanta and put his nose to the grindstone, becoming an exceptional dancer in a very short period of time. After dancing for a few years in Atlanta with Barbara Sullivan, he went to New York to continue his training and spent some time dancing with Chuck Davis.
He recalls that when he made this decision, he didn’t know any full-time, professional artists; the artists he knew were primarily educators. It is for this reason that he makes himself available to anyone who wants to learn from him.
The Wonder Years
After seven years of dance training, Harris moved back to Atlanta. He made a promise to God: “Lord, I’ll take the first job that comes.” That first job turned out to be a temporary custodial position at Georgia Power. Though Harris wasn’t pleased with the position (and was recovering from a stomach bug), he took it because he needed the work and he had made a promise.
When he had worked there for about a month, he got a call from a friend in New York he had met while dancing for Chuck Davis. She asked him a question that most people wouldn’t expect to hear: Would you like to dance for Stevie Wonder? He had been recommended to replace another dancer on the tour! Naturally, his answer was yes and by midnight, he was talking to the choreographer. Very few people he told believed him, including his manager at Georgia Power. “I thought you were better than that, Harris,” he said, when he heard his reason for calling off of work. Within days, Harris had performed at a Stevie Wonder concert and had been contracted for the next two locations on the tour.
When he started dancing for Stevie Wonder, he asked, “God what can I do to impress Stevie? God’s response: Do your job.” Likely because of that bit of heavenly advice, one of Harris’ mottos is “Work at work.” He puts his all into what he is asked to do. In an unexpected twist, he was offered the opportunity to take on the choreographer job for the world tour. As a professional artist, Harris is aware of what he brings to the table, so he asked, “My salary is going to change, right?” The staff thought that, like most, he would just be satisfied with the title and association with Stevie Wonder, but Harris told them he wouldn’t be able to accept if they couldn’t do more. They managed to do more.
He seamlessly bridges the arts and business. As Jordan Scudder, a student in Moving in the Spirit’s Men in Motion program says, “I like him, but he don’t play.” This precisely illustrates Harris’s tough as nails, heart of gold personality. “I’m here to serve,” he says, “but I’m gonna work the heck out of you.”
A Dream Come True
Recently, Harris encountered Jude Futrell at the opening of a show at Theatrical Outfit. Jude, a former employee of Moving in the Spirit and current volunteer, asked Harris if he would like to work with Moving in the Spirit. “Absolutely!” he responded. He had encountered the organization through serving on arts councils in Atlanta and had thoroughly connected with the mission and values of the organization. When this opportunity presented itself, he jumped on it. To be able to support the work of an organization he respected and loved and work with young people, particularly the boys in Men in Motion, was “a dream come true.”
Here to Serve
Harris has dedicated his life and art to serving others, whether he is in a position of leadership or not. He even introduced himself to Moving in the Spirit’s Men in Motion on bended knee, telling them that he was there to serve. He wants the people he works with to know that the time they spend together will be about sharing: he with them and vice versa. He says, “When you’re in a position of authority, what people remember the most is how you exercised that authority. It should always be done in love, not in love for the position, but in love for the people who have been placed in your care.”
Harris’ art is meant to “entertain with a message.” From the moment he realized that art had power, he knew that he wanted to harness that power to make people feel things, to help them receive things that they couldn’t get any other way.
Do it Like the African King
Not only did Harris choreograph dancers on Stevie Wonder’s tour, he choreographed the man himself. He gave him steps, to see not only how he moved, but how he thought about movement, which “did not look like how we would think about it.” He would then give him an attitude to embody. “Do it like the African king,” Harris would say to get him to achieve a certain look. “Do it like the cool guy in Harlem.” He brought that same kind of imagery to his work with Men in Motion. “I find those key words, like out of everyday life, so that it pushes into them.” He understands what motivates people, and he could tell that when he wanted these young men to pull up, “ballet” wouldn’t resonate as much as “African king.” He was right.
In the space of two and a half hours, Harris had gone beyond setting a dance on the boys; he had turned them into storytellers. They became the keyboard, they became the drums, they became Stevie himself.
Sunshine for Stevie Wonder
Harris looks on his time with Stevie Wonder fondly. He knows him as a genius, a consultant, a funny man, and someone who always gave those around him more than enough of his talent and himself. He appreciates Stevie Wonder with being a living representation of excellence, of showing that kindness and fame can coexist, and for making himself available.
“Sunshine” is Moving in the Spirit shorthand for positive affirmation and is an opportunity for one person to lift up another. Patdro Harris has “Sunshine” for Stevie Wonder:
“I would say thank you for being so vulnerable. Thank you for sharing your heart, that it felt like my heart, that your spirit felt like my spirit, your music feels like my music… Sunshine for him is like, thank you, man, for being vulnerable, to open your life up when things were hard, like to fight for Martin Luther King’s day… [T]hank you for doing the things that are not popular, but you still did them. Sunshine would be like, thank you for being just a kind person. And the last thing, Sunshine for being obedient to what God called you to do, to be kind and bless the world.”