Kara Jenelle “KJ” Wade wasn’t raised to be a professional dancer. As a young girl, she loved to make up dance routines with her friends on the playgrounds and street corners of her hometown in North Carolina.
“It was always a part of my culture and upbringing,” Wade said. Instead of dancing, she played soccer. “I was never in a tutu or ballet slippers.”
She began training in dance in high school, and further immersed herself in college. From that point on, Wade has crafted a unique career as a dance artist, working with Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill and the Black Eyed Peas; as a choreographer, creating viral dance videos and challenges on YouTube; and as an educator, leading workshops across the country.
Wade, who is receiving a master of fine arts degree in choreographic inquiry from UCLA, will address the 2021 graduating class of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture at the June 12 virtual commencement, in recognition of her extraordinary academic achievements.
She plans to honor her ancestors for the hardships they’ve endured and the barriers they broke, while also acknowledging the resilience of her fellow classmates for graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic and for using their art to speak to today’s challenges.
At the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, Wade majored in dance and African American studies.
“College was my time to get immersed and figure out what I wanted to do, because I never had the studio life growing up,” she recalled.
Wade’s study abroad experience in South Africa was the first major turning point in her dance career. At the University of Cape Town, Wade studied a vast range of dance styles, including gumboot, house, hip-hop and contemporary jazz ballet. This diverse experience helped her identify the genres on which she wanted to base her career.
In South Africa, she encountered classmates from countries across the continent, including Uganda, Rwanda, Togo, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.
“I think every Black person needs to go to the motherland,” Wade said. “Everybody needs to experience time in Africa. Even just stepping foot into soil where you are not the minority makes a world of difference.”
During her time at UNC Greensboro, Wade and two colleagues saw a lack of support for dancers at the university. They started a nonprofit fraternity, Delta Chi Xi, with the purpose of acknowledging academic excellence and supporting the university’s community of dancers.
One of Wade’s main goals for Delta Chi Xi was to help fellow dancers develop professional skills that would assist them in building their careers. She and her colleagues led workshops and reached out to connections for advice on topics such as finding an agent, writing résumés and personal branding.
“That was information we weren’t necessarily getting in a school program,” Wade said. “They focus on pedagogy. They focus on techniques. The creative theoretical components are there. But when it comes to actually making it a lifestyle and a career, I think that’s what the academic world is still missing. If I knew what I know now, I would have double majored in business and dance.”
Slowly, Wade built the knowledge base that would prove essential to her dance career. She found opportunities to learn in everything, from conversations with other performers to the contracts she signed for performances. After graduating from college, she moved to Washington, D.C., to begin her professional dance career. In D.C., she tried out for countless dance companies and teaching positions.
“I was constantly on the Megabus and BoltBus, going back and forth from D.C. to New York, auditioning,” she said.
At the same time, she built up her social media presence. YouTube was the place where Wade’s personal brand began to solidify and grow. She started creating her own content, videos and choreography, and the view counts started ticking up.
“I started doing Afrobeat videos,” Wade said, “and that’s when stuff started flourishing for me.”
Soon, she was being sought out for choreography and workshops. Wade decided that to continue to develop her career in the commercial and entertainment industries, she needed to relocate to Los Angeles. However, she realized that her talent and ambition weren’t always enough to get the roles she wanted. As a Black dancer with curly hair, she found herself being typecast into “urban” roles, which were scarce and sometimes only had a few auditions a year.
“We used to run to the auditions where it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re going to hire more than one Black girl today,’” Wade recalled. For other roles, Wade was told she would not be hired unless she cut her dreadlocks.
At the same time, creators appropriated Black styles and trends without including Black dancers in their content.
“I was feeling like they wanted our style, but not our look, the look of us.”
Recently, though, things have been looking up. Wade identifies Beyoncé’s music video for “Formation,” produced as part of visual album “Lemonade,” to be a major turning point for the inclusion of Black dancers. When Beyoncé sings, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros,” she’s surrounded by female dancers sporting afros.
“Artists are looking a certain way and taking pride in their own look and aesthetic,” Wade said. “They’re wearing their African heritage proudly, without it being a costume.”
In 2019, Wade began working toward her master of fine arts degree at UCLA, where she transitioned to focus more deeply on choreography and professional development. David Roussève, professor of choreography in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, is her faculty adviser and committee chair.
“KJ is one of the most dedicated M.F.A. students I have had the honor of working with — her hard work is matched only by her immense talent,” said Roussève, who also commends Wade’s risk-taking aesthetic, courage and perceptiveness as a woman of color, and her insistence on using her choreographic voice for the betterment of humankind.
“I look forward to watching KJ’s daring work shift the fields of both concert and commercial dance,” he said.
Wade’s recent dance film, “ÌYÁguration,” is part of her master’s thesis at UCLA, and it’s also part of a wave of art that celebrates Black pride and pays homage to African heritage, such as films “Black Panther” and “Black Is King.”
“‘Ìyá’ is the Yoruba word for ‘great mother,’” Wade said. “‘ÌYÁguration’ is the inaugural work celebrating the Black woman.”
The film explores the history and channels of different Black women’s stories — their pastimes, their sisterhood, their resilience and even their hair. It also pays homage to Black female leaders, such as Shirley Chisholm, Mary McLeod Bethune, Nina Simone, Michelle Obama and Sojourner Truth, and marks the occasion of Vice President Kamala Harris’ inauguration.
“We celebrate our sisterhood and our camaraderie, the way that we support each other and how we’ll adjust your crown,” Wade said. The film features a vast array of Afro-Brazilian dances, West African dance and rhythms celebrating womanhood.
“ÌYÁguration” was filmed in Rosarito, Mexico, on a large balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The rich colors and flowing fabrics of the dancers’ outfits are a callback to outfits worn by Black women at the 2021 presidential inauguration, such as young poet Amanda Gorman’s vibrant yellow dress and Michelle Obama’s striking burgundy ensemble.
“I wanted to really focus on [Black women’s] resilience as well as their celebration,” Wade said, “so that we can have something to look forward to at the same time.”
Wade is looking forward to the opportunities ahead as she approaches graduation. She hopes to extend those opportunities to her network of fellow performers, musicians and creatives. Wade credits much of her success to her “tribe” at UCLA, including her cohort of four students in the choreographic inquiry program, all of whom are Black.
“There’s no way I could have made it happen without my family,” Wade said. “Having a tribe made a world of difference. Anytime something comes my way, I’m always trying to extend it to my tribe and look out for them just the same. Because we need each other.”