What My Teacher Taught Me: Gibney Company’s Kevin Pajarillaga on Maleek Washington
May 3, 2023

Maleek Washington was my first-ever contemporary dance teacher. Before meeting him, I had spent my early childhood doing kung fu and my early teenage years doing street styles and hip hop. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I went to CityDance Conservatory in North Bethesda, Maryland, and met Maleek. He introduced me to Afro-jazz, Afro-fusion, contemporary, and modern, right at the beginning of my dance journey. It was an important time for me, and he was my guide to different genres, companies, cultures, and ways to express myself. We aren’t all that far off in age, and we became really close through that process. He taught me about life and how to exist in the world. He set an excellent example for me.

A close-up stylized headshot shows Kevin Pajarillaga in dark red and orange lighting, looking upward on a slight profile angle.
Kevin Pajarillaga. Photo by Olga Rabetskaya, courtesy Pajarillaga. Kevin Pajarillaga. Photo by Olga Rabetskaya, courtesy Pajarillaga.

Maleek is from the Bronx. His dance training started in New York, and he attended Boston Conservatory on scholarship for college. I met him while he was dancing with Company E, which was the resident company at CityDance at the time. Since then, he’s worked with choreographers all over the world, including Kyle Abraham and Camille A. Brown. I was his student from ages 16 to 18, but even after finishing my studio training, I traveled with him everywhere to assist and sub his classes.

He’s a dynamic teacher—malleable to the moment, and to what his students need. He asks and listens, then adjusts his plan. I remember one class of his in which the room was pretty tired. He had clearly come into the room feeling ambitious, but that’s not what his students needed just yet. So, he started class softly and allowed our bodies to really wake up and find mobility. He let our minds ease into the experience. Then, eventually, as our energy began to lift, he shifted back to his original plans, and we were all able to be bright and whole. In the end, our bodies were able to become more explosive than they would have been had he just plowed ahead with what he wanted from the start. I really appreciated that. It’s something I now try to incorporate into my own teaching.

We’ve always shared a similar passion for dance and life. I came to him with my concerns, and he gave me advice. I didn’t always listen to him, but it was nice to be able to talk to someone who understood what I was experiencing. He’s always cared so deeply about the work. He invests his time and energy into researching, digging deeper into his own narratives and technical training. He’s diligent, and when he dances, you can see the work he’s put into it all. His commitment has been inspiring to me. I too want to be someone who invests my whole heart into my work.

Striving to emulate Maleek’s passion has made my love of dance grow. Now, working hard doesn’t feel like working hard. It feels like fun! All of my professional experiences have stemmed from this practice. I feel very lucky to do what I do and have the job that I have. I’m living my dream, and that is thanks, in part, to him.

So thank you, Maleek. In the deepest way, thank you.

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