A Dual-Credit Certificate can go a long way. Just ask this singer/dancer/director/recruiter/social activist and mentor.
When he first arrived in New York City on August 1, 1989, Chris Davis admits, “I was as green as I could be.”
Having shaken the dust of his hometown, Lake Charles, Louisiana, Davis was a young man determined to become a professional dancer. While the odds against him were daunting, he did have a couple of things in his favor: singular talent as both a dancer and singer, and, thanks to finishing fourth in the Mr. Dance of America competition, a scholarship that provided a temporary home at the Marriott Marquis hotel.
What’s more, unlike many wide-eyed show biz wannabes arriving in the Big Apple, Davis had what he calls “a survival job right off the plane.” Through a Louisiana friend who worked at Taffy’s Inc., he landed a sales position at the dancewear store then located at 57th and Broadway. (Although his stint there was brief, he did put Kathleen Turner’s daughter into her first pair of ballet slippers. Davis calls the “Body Heat” actress “very imposing, but really cool.”)
His luck continued when, within two weeks, he scored his first audition — for a show on a Holland America cruise ship. It required dancing and singing, but Davis had no sheet music, not even a head shot — “that’s how green I was,” he says.
But he had done “A Chorus Line” in community theater back in Lake Charles, and he dazzled the audition audience with a couple of numbers from that musical. He got a callback, and then, to his amazement, was offered the job: an eight-month gig in the Caribbean.
With rehearsals starting two weeks later, he wangled a leave of absence from Taffy’s, found an inexpensive apartment through a friend, and, a few weeks after that, flew out of New York for Tampa, Florida, and the cruise ship.
“When we took off,” he remembers, “it was snowing — one of the first snows I had seen as an adult.”
The flight from cold and snowy New York to sunny Florida could serve as a metaphor for a career that was about to get hot — a career that would eventually land him in Wilmington, where he has brought a touch of Broadway to a grateful arts community while finding time to earn a Dual-Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Wilmington University.
An Arts Influence
Davis accumulated impressive credentials as a performer, with national and inter-national tours in such musicals as “The Wiz,” “Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies” and “Guys and Dolls,” as well as seven Broadway shows, including “Miss Saigon” and “Peter Pan” (with Cathy Rigby).
He also was chosen for a three-month stint in “A Christmas Carol” at Madison Square Garden, choreographed by Delaware’s own Tony Award-winning Susan Stroman. He added some TV work and appeared in three movies, including “Center Stage” in 2000. After a final national tour with Jimmy Buffet, he retired as a performer 17 years ago.
Since then Davis has been even busier, if that’s possible. He has retained a firm presence in the world of performing arts as a teacher, mentor, director and recruiter for arts organizations, while at the same time working with civil rights and social action groups, especially in the LGBT community.
For several years after retiring as a performer, his base of operations was the place he knew best and where the action was: New York City. He served nine years as managing producer for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Founded in the late ’80s as the theater community’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the nonprofit raises funds for AIDS-related causes across the United States. He then joined Step One International, an organization incorporated in 2015 that caters to dancers from Andorra and Spain. Davis opened and became director of operations for the New York branch, which offers customized workshops for these Spanish speakers as they arrive in the city.
Around this time, Wilmington — and, eventually, Wilmington University — entered the picture. He and his husband, Dennis Voorheis, whom he met while doing “West Side Story” in Switzerland, were invited to visit Wilmington by friends who also had a home in New York.
“We had a fun time and started thinking long-term and decided to look into Wilmington as an investment in our future,” Davis says. “Real estate is so expensive in New York, so Wilmington was obviously cheaper, and it’s close to Philadelphia, so there is access to high quality arts and culture, which is my personal focus.”
They got a real estate agent, started a search, “and a few months later, we had our home,” he says.
They bought their house in Brandywine Hundred 10 years ago as a second home while keeping an apartment in New York, which they now sublet, and moved here permanently in 2017.
“We have dear friends in Philly, so this works socially, and we’ve made some wonderful connections in Wilmington,” Davis says.
He found a job as a member services representative for AAA’s office in Newark, Delaware, meanwhile immediately immersing himself in the local arts community, which has welcomed him enthusiastically.
Through his company, The Performing Arts Experience LLC (PAE), he contracts top-notch teachers for performing arts institutions in the Delaware Valley. He vets talent, writes and implements letters of agreement and contracts, and arranges transportation and payment for talent.
PAE works with the Christina Cultural Arts Center (CCAC), Cab Calloway School of the Arts, Delaware Contemporary, and others. He serves on the Contemporary’s 40th Anniversary Committee and the board of the Bruce Montgomery Foundation for the Arts, based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. He also teaches at Wilmington Ballet.
“Chris is a fresh, much-welcome addition to the Wilmington arts circle,” says Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald, owner of Arts in Media. “His energy is simply infectious. He brings us a wealth of ideas, talent and experience of his own, but he also has incredible relationships with national and international artists that he generously connects with our local arts organizations.”
Kramer-Fitzgerald says that last year, Davis helped to bring Jeremy McQueen, artistic director of the Black Iris Project, to the CCAC for a contemporary ballet workshop for students.
“Chris even hosted his own workshop there last year on how to properly prepare for auditions,” she says. “He’s quite a gem for this community to treasure.”
Davis was introduced to Wilmington University three years ago at a charity event at Longwood Gardens, where he met Bevin Hileman, assistant to the vice president of Student Affairs and Alumni Relations, coordinator of Special Projects and an adjunct instructor. She invited him and his husband to the Green and White Scholarship Ball in both 2018 and 2019. Through Hileman and others at the University, he learned about WilmU curricula that dovetailed with his career aspirations. Result: He was soon enrolled in WilmU’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management program.
The seven-week, 18-credit certification teaches concepts and methods, and lays the groundwork for the student to become an effective and creative leader of a nonprofit.
Hileman, who teaches the program’s Fundraising course, says of Davis, who has become a friend: “He is extremely thoughtful, and his energy will make you want to try harder for yourself, your friends, and your community. His philanthropic heart bleeds for a better world.”
Davis is extremely thoughtful, and his energy will make you want to try harder for yourself, your friends, and your community. His philanthropic heart bleeds for a better world.
A graduate of McNeese State University (Mass Communications) in his hometown and Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, Davis has enjoyed his return to academia. “The University has been great,” he says, “especially the ability to study online, which has fit into my very busy schedule —full-time job, serving on two boards, bringing in teachers, going to the gym, teaching two classes a month at Wilmington Ballet.”
He received his certification in March, and he hopes to find a management position with a nonprofit “that engages people in terms of arts and culture.”
With an apartment and friends in New York, Davis continues to stay in touch with happenings there. But he and Voorheis have settled into a comfortable if sometimes frenetic suburban lifestyle. With frequent forays into the city (often Market Street’s Merchant Bar) and Greenville (Pizza by Elizabeths), the former song-and-dance man has become a true Wilmingtonian.
“I’m looking forward to my next chapter,” he says — “in this area.”