On a Friday afternoon, Terrance Henderson gathers a group of Columbia College dancers into a circle, taking time to learn their names and listening to them recite lines. What’s actually an audition feels more like group therapy as Terrance strives to create an esprit de corps.
Terrance wants his choreography for this show, which will use both contemporary dance and the spoken word, to revolve around working out differences. He tells the young women, “We have every word available in every language, and still we can’t express ourselves.”
Privately, he elaborates, “We can’t communicate. We can’t hear each other. Sometimes we can’t see. How can we understand if we’re not seeing? How can we be tolerant? How can we be kind? In a place where everyone’s striving to be seen and heard, no one’s listening, and we can’t get to be seen and heard without listening.
“I’m thrown into this situation often in which I’m the new person walking into an environment of people I don’t know and who sometimes don’t know each other, and we’ve all got to do something together. No matter who the people are, no matter how talented they are, no matter what their backgrounds are, no matter what race they are, no matter what age they are, people are able to be united under a vision.”
The very next day, Terrance and his protégé, Jonathan Smith, are spinning around a group of 10 giggly ballerinas at the Columbia Ballet School; the girls have already auditioned and won coveted spots to dance in a contemporary piece for the school’s 40th anniversary celebration. When Terrance begins counting out measures of eight beats, the girls instantly change their demeanor to one of serious concentration. While Jonathan gently corrects individual dancers in the mirror, Terrance stands in the corner of the room, singing parts of the musical accompaniment “Lijepa Mare” from Balkan Beat Box. He then exclaims in rhythm, “I can’t believe it worked!” An hour later, Terrance will be in the same studio, choreographing a group of male dancers, a typical Saturday for him.
His Samsonesque dreadlocks secured in a ponytail underneath an African-inspired scarf, Terrance is wearing athletic shorts and Nike shoes with a blue robe. Jonathan, who met Terrance in the fourth grade at Logan Elementary School, says the headwrap is part of Terrance’s aesthetic. Jonathan sports long locks, too, but Terrance says, “When I was Jonathan’s age, I had a buzz cut. The look was so specific back then that you couldn’t get a job.” Terrance, who graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2001, has been growing his hair for 13 years.
Anita Ashley, owner of Columbia Ballet School, gave Terrance his first teaching job, based on a recommendation from Cynthia (Cindy) Flach, who is on the dance faculty at USC and served as a mentor to Terrance. “She taught both beginning and intermediate/advanced jazz my freshman year at USC. She said I was a natural and needed the basics but also needed to be pushed. I thought she was crazy but she was right.”
He adds, “As a dancer, I know what it feels like to be overlooked.” Terrance noted that his body type was not right for ballet. “I took ballet classes at the university without receiving much attention. Cindy was the first person to pull me aside and say, ‘Terrance, we’ve got to work on your feet. When you plié, you’ve got to push, wrap on the way back up.’ Cindy actually took the time to really help me.”
Terrance is determined not to allow anyone on the stage or rehearsal floor to feel overlooked. “It’s like a mission for me to create a community first and get the power of the community behind a vision. You get much deeper work out of it that way. I don’t have to tell them every single thing. They feel connected in a way that allows them to make choices, and it makes the work better. It’s not like I go in somewhere, and I tell people what to do and walk away.”
As a fourth grader, Jonathan joined Logan Elementary’s West African drum and dance ensemble, which Terrance directed with percussionist Chris Lee, Ph.D. At the time, Jonathan, who earned his degree in music education from USC in 2017, focused on percussion and did not yet dance. Later, when he joined the theater program at Dreher High School, he reconnected with Terrance, who was choreographing Les Misérables. By that time, Terrance had a dance company, Vibrations, which is now on hiatus, and Jonathan wanted to be in it.
“He just kind of laughed it off because a lot of his previous students say that to him,” Jonathan recalls. But the following year, Jonathan became an apprentice in the company, studying technique and repertoire with Terrance throughout his high school and college years. Currently, Jonathan works as a professional dancer for Celebrity Cruises and Cirque Dreams but assists Terrance whenever he returns home to Columbia. “It’s come full circle now,” Jonathan says, “because I have taught at Logan with him. I consider him my second father. He’s amazing.”
Another outstanding student of Terrance’s is Monessa Salley, who taught dance for 12 years in Richland County School District One and was named S.C. Dance Educator of the Year in 2013-14. She left teaching to attend graduate school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and now is a member of the Sarasota Contemporary Dance company in Florida. Terrance recently visited her to teach a class and watch the company perform one of his choreographed works.
A native of Newberry, Terrance sang in church and played the trumpet at school. At Newberry High School, he acted in his first play and then went on to attend a summer theater program at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. He spent the next summer at The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where he took his first dance class. That experience planted a seed.
Terrance stopped teaching West African dance at Logan Elementary in 2016, but he currently serves as the school’s arts integration specialist, showing teachers how to incorporate the arts into the regular curriculum. Part of his mission is to steer schools away from compartmentalizing the arts. Until this past year, he was an artist-in-residence at A.C. Moore Elementary and spent evenings in his own dance studio. That kind of schedule, he now realizes, is not healthy. “It’s not sustainable. I finally had to reckon with that. I did it for so long, and then two years ago, I injured myself for the second time in my career, and that sat me down for a while.”
Being sidelined gave Terrance some time to think about what to do next. “In this community, once you’re known as Terrance the dancer, then it’s really hard for anybody to think of you as anything else,” he says. “The community will revere you for it, but it’s hard for them to change their minds about who they think you are.” One group of performing artists that validates Terrance’s many pursuits is Full Circle Productions, an interdisciplinary, collaborative troupe. Another, perhaps dearest to Terrance’s heart, is the singing trio IndigoSOUL.
“Katrina Blanding, Kendrick Marion, and I have been doing theater. We’ve done three shows together; we sang at Trustus in many shows. I’ve choreographed them and directed them in many shows, and then, finally in 2016, when I choreographed Ruins for Harbison Theatre’s Performance Incubator program, it became clear to me that the three of us were a thing.” They had performed together in The Henderson Brothers Burlesque Show at Trustus, and, in 2019, they toured an original play Terrance wrote called Shine. They have sung at what Terrance calls “purposed events,” like Dr. Leo Twiggs’ Requiem for Mother Emmanuel at the South Carolina State Museum. They also created the soundtrack for the 2016 film Rising, commemorating the first anniversary of the 1,000-year flood.
In 2016, Terrance received a notable accolade that helped him “broaden the definition” of his work: the Stephen G. Morrison Visionary Award from the group One Columbia for Arts and Culture. “Being given an award as a visionary means that it’s not just about the dances I’ve created, or the songs I’ve sung, or the plays I’ve directed. It’s about having sight. It’s about seeing something people can’t see and then motivating and moving people towards that thing and having an impact on the city. It helped me change the conversation on what my strengths are beyond creating dance and theater. I realized I’m creating community and empowering people behind my ‘vision.’”
Terrance’s involvement in Columbia runs the gamut from dance coordinator at the Midlands Arts Conservatory to an arts facilitator for the city’s Amplify cultural plan. Insisting that performing artists have a unique perspective because their work takes them across demographic boundaries, Terrance believes that arts leadership is essential.
“I do feel seen and heard in this community right now,” Terrance says. “I feel more in sync with everything now than before. I feel I’m in tune with myself, with the time that I’m in, with the place that I’m in.”
A Chat with Terrance Henderson Between Rehearsals
Q: About T.O. Henderson Dance, or TODANCE, Inc., what does the “O” stand for?
A: Orlando. That’s my middle name. T.O. is my nickname. Most people call me T.O. That name has been with me since I was 2 years old. Somehow, it’s traveled with me my whole life. In high school my teachers called me T.O. My family calls me T.
Q: Do you have a favorite movie or book?
A: So, I always say, The Color Purple is my favorite movie. My favorite book would be anything by James Baldwin.
Q: What is your favorite genre of music?
A: Soul music: of course, Nina Simone, but newer artists like John Legend and older artists like Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, and Curtis Mayfield. I love Bobby McFerrin.
Q: What was your first job?
A: Little Caesar’s Pizza. I worked there for two weeks! I didn’t last very long.
Q: What’s your favorite comfort food?
A: Fried rice. I have lots of places in town that I like. If I’m on this side of town (near Rosewood Drive), Main Moon, right down the street — I love it. But I love all Miyo’s … I’m a fan of all of them. I like the small, underground, little pocket restaurants, like China One on North Main.
Q: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
A: I think I’m an extroverted introvert. I think I prefer alone time and downtime and quiet. I also enjoy engaging with people, but I don’t really prefer it. I enjoy the engagement part of it, but crowds and big parties and lots of people … I’d rather be home and quiet.
Q: Messy or neat desk?
A: Messy everything. It’s not even just my desk. My office at home is an organized mess. I do know where everything is, but there’s also like a stack of old CDs (flash-burn CDs like for this rehearsal), some mail, and a couple of notepads from different shows.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: My favorite thing to do is to be home and doing nothing. But I also like to go to the movies. I really prefer hanging with friends, like at someone’s house.
Q: Do you have rituals before a performance?
A: I do a little meditation. Music is a big part. I have music that I play depending on what I’m getting ready for. I also have different rituals depending on what it is. If I’m going to sing, then vocalizing, drinking lots of water, becomes a part of it. If it’s a dancing thing, then sometimes it’s my physical rituals, my sit-ups and breathing exercises and my little Gyrotonic warm-up and stretching — that kind of stuff. I also like to take a nap before a show. I like to get my stuff done, then get up and take a shower. It’s something about that freshness!