By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
Birmingham native Winston Strickland was no stranger to classical music when he began ballet classes at age 10.
“My grandmother would make me read all of the street signs while she drove around; that was her way of making me read. She also would never let me listen to regular radio music, … and at times she would play classical music,” he said. “On the flipside of that, I fell in love with classical music, so when I got to ballet class, I knew all of the music.”
Strickland, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies for The World Games 2022, is founder and artistic director of the Music and Dance Skillz Company (M.A.D. Skillz), an organization that provides training and performance opportunities for dancers between ages 10 and 18 years of age. He teaches dance using elements of hip-hop, jazz, ballet, African, modern, and praise. He also choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of The World Games 2022 (TWG 2022).
Strickland, 51, knew he was going to be a dancer at age 10.
“No one influenced me to dance,” he said. “I was just a kid watching ‘Soul Train’ and ‘Solid Gold,’ [American syndicated music television programs that showcased musical acts and dancers], and I was like, ‘Man, I want to do that!’”
He can remember getting in trouble for participating in dance competitions at schools around the city of Birmingham.
“That’s when my mom put me in ballet classes with Donna Todd, [who founded one Birmingham’s premier Black dance and performance studios],” Strickland recalled. “I was one of the only guys in the group of all girls.”
Strickland founded M.A.D. Skillz in 1999 after working with his attorney, Roger Walls, to file for a business license, copyrights, and limited liability company (LLC) status, as well as to purchase the name. In August 2000, Strickland hosted his first audition for M.A.D. Skillz.
“Thirty-three dancers, around age 7 through 17 auditioned, and I took them all in,” he said. “Our first show was ‘MTV Knowledge is Power,’ presented by the United Negro College Fund. They had us dance three times, and we killed it.”
M.A.D. Skillz went on to win numerous awards for competitive dance, including one with Black Entertainment Television’s (BET’s) “106 & Park,” an American hip-hop and R&B music video show.
Strickland grew up in a single-parent household in Birmingham with his mother and siblings—twin sisters, Kia and Kisha, and brother, Colvin Sellers, all of whom are dancers.
He is very close to his brother, also known as DJ CJ Tha Sticman, who mixes live on air for two local radio stations: WBHJ-FM (95.7 Jamz) and WBHK-FM (98.7 Kiss).
“[My brother and I] are key ingredients of M.A.D. Skillz. I do the dancing, and he does the music,” Strickland said. “I give him credit because we individually made our own platforms but collectively made M.A.D. Skillz.”
Strickland, who became a professional dancer at the age of 17, said his first experience as a dancer was “tap dancing with the Tuxedo Junction band on television.”
“I had a friend that went to Woodlawn High School. He was my dance partner. He went to Atlanta, [Georgia], a couple of times and met an agent. He came back and told me they wanted me to come and audition. I caught the bus to Atlanta, met the talent agent, auditioned, and made it,” said Strickland, who worked with rapper Bow Wow, R&B group Jagged Edge, and producer Jermaine Dupri.
“I started to meet a bunch of stars, [including R&B group] TLC and rappers Master P and C Murda, then I went on tour with [R&B singer] Keith Sweat,” said Strickland.
When started earning regular checks as a professional dancer, he said to himself, “I am not going back to Birmingham”—but he couldn’t totally turn his back on his hometown.
Strickland learned that BET was hosting dance competitions in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio.
“I would grab up some of my kids that could go, and we would win the competitions in each state. If you won, you automatically got a spot on [BET’s ‘106 & Park’], so we kept doing it and kept winning,” he said.
After the fifth win, the producer asked M.A.D Skillz to come back on the show because he had a dance crew that could beat them: “We got there and we won again,” said Strickland.
“There was an ongoing rivalry with me, BET, and their producer at that time. He felt like I was arrogant,” Strickland added. “It wasn’t that I was arrogant. They just thought we were country because we were from Alabama. He would always call me and ask, ‘What are y’all going to do?’ I would say, ‘We’re riding horses and bringing chickens.’”
M.A.D Skillz won nine shows on “106 & Park,” and several of the dancers would go on to perform in music videos as a group or individually.
“That was the whole point—to get them the exposure while getting paid. I wanted them to walk in my footsteps as a professional. … We have won so many awards and been so many places, but what excites me the most is watching [the dancers] grow professionally,” said Strickland.
World Travels and The World Games
Although he traveled a lot, Strickland would visit his family in Birmingham every chance he got.
“My mom asked me to come back. When I did, she introduced me to this group called Umdabu from South Africa. … My dance teacher’s name was Jomo Xulu. I fell in love with it, and it was like a warrior brotherhood,” said Strickland, who was the only American in the group and could not speak their South African language.
“It was a learning experience, plus they paid pretty good,” Strickland laughed.
This summer, Strickland choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies for TWG 2022.
“One day I received a phone call from [Henry Panion III, Ph.D., composer, arranger, conductor, educator, and professor in the Department of Music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham],” said Strickland. “He was one of the producers of [TWG 2022] opening and closing ceremonies, and he told me he wanted me to [contribute to the event].”
Strickland recruited dancers from all over the state of Alabama: “I wanted to give other dancers the exposure they wanted and needed on a large stage.”
With TWG 2022 behind him, Strickland was asked about retirement.
“I retired for a minute, but when dancing calls you back and your kids want you back, [you have] to go right back into it,” said Strickland. “I wanted to retire because I’m 51 years old. I don’t want to be teaching hip-hop at 60. This generation lacks dance experience because TikTok has taken over.”
For now, Strickland is back in the game and currently working to form a new M.A.D. Skillz.
“I’m just bringing back the old tradition of hip-hop to do shows that will help keep these kids busy and off the streets. I want to keep dance alive. Without dance nothing moves,” said Strickland.
For more on M.A.D. Skillz: 5360 Oporto Madrid Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35210, (205) 862-6066