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Assigned Reading: Chris Walker

Chris Walker, professor of dance and director of UW Division of the Arts, had his life changed by a UW professor’s book. Now he’s offering his own recommendations.”

John Allen
September 14, 2021

When Chris Walker was a young man, a UW professor’s book changed his life.

This statement may seem mundane, until you consider the circumstances: Walker was then a professional dancer, and he wasn’t enrolled in college. He was working in shows at the Jamaica Grand Hotel in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, not far from where he grew up. He never met the professor in question — she had been dead for years. And he hadn’t really been seeking out life-changing literature. Further, the book’s author was Margaret H’Doubler 1910, MA1924, hardly known for writing coffee table books, and yet that’s where he found her volume: on a coffee table in the hotel’s waiting room. The book was Dance: A Creative Art Experience.

“Clearly, some guest left it,” he says. “I picked it up, opened the book to the middle, then just read the first paragraph my eyes landed on, and it was about art and culture as significant, about dance as art practice. And I remember feeling immediately, ‘This is what I do. This is what I do. There’s a whole piece of literature on this. This is what I do.’ ”

Walker quit his dance troupe, enrolled in the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, and launched into a career as an artist and teacher. In graduate school, he met UW professor Claudia Melrose ’65, who encouraged him to come to the UW as a visiting artist in 2006. He has stayed ever since. In 2009, he helped launch UW–Madison’s First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community, and in July, he was named director of the university’s Division of the Arts. Though he won’t be teaching in 2021–22, one of his most popular and demanding courses is Dance 318 — Cultural Crosscurrents: West African Dance/Music in the Americas.

My assigned readings include:

“There’s more. It’s an exhaustive reading list,” says Walker. “All the students say it’s the most they would read for any course. But it’s a 300-level course.”

I like to read:

“I read a lot of poetry and short stories,” Walker says. “I like to keep up with the graduates of our First Wave program, so I’ve read Danez Smith [’12], DeShawn McKinney [’17] — he wrote a book of poems that I’m still processing. And I read a lot of scripts.”

The book everyone should read is:

“It tells the story of the migration of African American families from the Southern states to the Northeast, to the Midwest, and to the West Coast,” Walker says. “As a foreigner, I felt like it was an important part of my becoming American.”

The books I read again and again are:

“They help me understand where I am in the race conversation here, given my identity is Black Jamaican and Black West Indian, but not Black African American,” Walker says. “I’m working through a lot of what that means.”

The book I keep meaning to read (but haven’t yet) is:

“It’s about shaping change, changing worlds,” he says, and then he pauses. “I’m taking it off the shelf, and I’m going to read it. See what you did there?”

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