December 21, 2016

Derrick Wilder: “Strong-Minded and Strong-Willed” Director of Performing Arts at Lawrenceville School

ALWAYS MOVING FORWARD: Derrick Wilder, a natural-born performer and teacher, spent many years dancing professionally before taking over the Lawrenceville School dance department, which has flourished under his leadership over the past 11 years.

Derrick Wilder, who came to Lawrenceville School in 2005 as director of dance, became chair of the performing arts department (including dance, theater, and instrumental and vocal music) two years ago. Under his leadership, the dance program has flourished and grown rapidly over the past 11 years, with a range of ballet, modern, and jazz classes for students of all levels, a host of student-led dance companies, and an abundance of performance opportunities, most notably the fall musical and the annual Spring Dance Concert. Before coming to Lawrenceville, Mr. Wilder enjoyed a successful career as a dancer, choreographer, administrator and dance educator. 

Here, in his own words, he talks about how his interest in dance shaped the experiences of his early days and eventually led him to travel all over the country and, more recently, all over the world. He also talks about a personal philosophy that has guided his life and led him to merge his love of dance with his interest in teaching at Lawrenceville.

“Fame” in Atlanta

I always wanted to be a performer. My favorite show was Fame and my idol was Gene Anthony Ray, who played the character Leroy. I grew up in Atlanta and even when I was playing basketball with my friends in the street — we had a makeshift basketball rim on a telephone pole — my friends knew that at 8 o’clock I had to go and watch my favorite show. They made fun of me, but I didn’t care. I would literally drop the ball and run away to watch the show.

I grew up with my paternal grandparents. It was a close-knit family. My aunt and uncle lived three houses down, my father lived across the street, my mother in another part of Atlanta. I saw everyone almost equally. Growing up I thought it was complicated, but now I realize it was the best-case scenario.

Mrs. Rutledge, New School

I remember saying, I don’t want to go to this white school, but looking back now I see it was the best decision. It changed my life. That’s where I met Ethel Rutledge, one of the most phenomenal people on the planet. She was my fifth grade teacher, and she put me on a path that I had no idea existed. I still visit her every time I go home. She’s 96.

When I entered this school my world changed tremendously because all of a sudden I was exposed to students from around the world. And there was Mrs. Rutledge. At the time, I had no idea of the stardust she was spreading.

When it rained she had us taking folk dance lessons. She saw how much I enjoyed it and how quickly I picked up the steps, so she would teach me and we would practice and then perform. She had a passion for dance and she brought this into the fifth grade classroom. Later when I was in 11th grade she got me an audition with a local dance company, and I received a full scholarship to the Southern Ballet Academy. She believed in the arts and its connection to education and how it opened the world for children. It was important to her to have that component and the academic component working side by side. She was ahead of her time.


So I’m in high school and dancing with the North Fulton Jazz Theater, and, because of Fame, I think I’m going to New York to audition for Broadway. That’s what I love. I love singing. I love dancing. I want to be on Broadway. But I learned about Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) and I realized my love of ballet. I like the discipline of it. I like the structure of it, and I also want to do something that isn’t happening for many people of color. That appealed to me as well.

I auditioned for DTH in Atlanta, and I received a full scholarship from them, so at age 18 I moved to New York with $350. My family was not happy about that. They didn’t quite understand. I was at DTH for two and half years, studying, working at fast food places, paying my rent, and then I moved to School of American Ballet, where I studied for the next two and a half years.

Both of these experiences gave me the push I needed to further my career. The Broadway dream had been put on the shelf. This ballet dream had taken hold of me and I was loving everything about it.

Back to Atlanta

After five and a half years of training my audition process started — 17 auditions, 16 rejections, and one “yes,” and ironically it was with the Atlanta Ballet. I didn’t want that job. I didn’t want to leave New York, but that’s exactly what happened.

My family didn’t always understand what I was doing, but they supported me because I’ve always been strong-minded and strong-willed. But they kept asking the question, when I was in these dance conservatories, “Well when are you going to graduate?” And it was hard to explain, so finally I got a job, and I’m graduating and I’m moving back to Atlanta, so they were happy about that.

I was with the Atlanta Ballet for a year as an apprentice, then my next job was with the Dayton Ballet and the rest unfolds from there.

To College

Jump forward many years. I’ve had a great career. Times for dance companies in the U.S. had become increasingly difficult. I wanted to get control of my life. I went in one day to the Dayton Ballet and said, this is it. I’m not doing this anymore. I was running their third company, which includes students from the company and features their Dance Power series. We went into schools, and this is where dance and education cross. That year I did 187 lecture demonstrations. The education component kept coming back in.

But then I asked myself, what is it that I want to do in life? My best friend at the time was at Columbia University, and she said, You have to come here, and I said, are you crazy? I was in my 30s. But I thought, I’ve pursued this goal. I’ve had my dream come true. I had an epiphany. It was a wonderful moment. I had that moment of realization and release — it was OK if I danced or if I didn’t. I knew I was going to be OK with the next thing I did. It was an easier transition because I felt good about it.

I went to Hunter College for a year and a half. I came out with a 4.0. I then applied to Columbia and got in. I was done with dance. I had decided to move away from dance. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. i was majoring in anthropology. I thought I either wanted to work for an advertising agency or start my own event planning company.

To Lawrenceville

So I was with a friend and he looks at me and says, why are you going away from dance? And I was without words. I couldn’t answer that. I thought the answer was that my philosophy in life was always move forward, never move back, so I’m always moving forward, and he was like, OK, but why does that not include dance?” And I honestly couldn’t answer him.

I’m getting ready to graduate from Columbia and I don’t have a job. Uh oh, what am I getting into? And I find out from a friend, a dancer and a math teacher at Lawrenceville School at the time, that they’re looking for a new director of dance, so I send in my resume, I come for an interview, and this is the start of my teaching career.

I came into this place thinking I’ve hit the motherlode, and I still believe that. I thought, this is going to be easy. They have a building dedicated to the arts, a theater, a building dedicated to music. This is where you can make art happen.

But it was an uphill battle the first three and a half years to get people to understand the discipline of it all. I had to change the mindset about dance of the young males here on campus. And to change the mindset of my colleagues. And students discovered that what I demand of them is as hard as what a varsity coach demands

Selling the Program

I knew I had to sell the program, so I did all kinds of crazy things. At a school meeting I set up a night club. I had a disco ball and lights and I had a roped off area, and kids were dancing. I passed out ”tickets,” all about signing up for dance. I did all kinds of crazy things to get them involved, and the program took off faster than anyone thought it would.

In my second year there were so many students auditioning for our spring dance concert. I’ve had a couple of young men who are
dancers at Princeton Ballet, and they’re treated just like varsity athletes around campus because everybody now recognizes how hard it is. I intentionally wear varsity coach’s attire. At first they said, you’re not a varsity coach, but I said, yes I am.

It’s difficult keeping it fresh and relevant, but because dance has always been hard I think it prepared me for any hardships I faced at Lawrenceville. In teaching dance I’ve been known to ask people to go out and come back in, because once they come into the space they need to be present, and they don’t need to do this only with dance. They need to find something in their lives where they repair themselves, their souls, their minds, their spirits. You must give yourself something in the day where it’s just you and it’s sheer joy that repairs you, so you can go out and start the process all over again, because that’s what life is about, pushing through these moments, getting to the other side without letting it crumble you.

I try to live my life that way. I try to be as authentic as I can. Dance has helped me do that, and I realize the life lessons I’ve learned from Mrs. Rutledge and others along the way.

Here’s the big surprise about my job. Outside of dance, there is something that brings me my greatest joy here, being a housemaster. I almost didn’t take the job when I found out I had to be a dorm parent. But that moment can happen when you get a personal connection, where it’s not formalized in the classroom and those real moments happen, when they see that you’re upset and you have to work through it, or when they are lost and they come to you for guidance.

I love the dance program and what it has become in the past 11 years, and being a house master is the surprise gem of this job.