Dancing missionary brings Christian hip hop to the NBA
At an NBA game earlier this season, a dance team performed choreography to Trip Lee’s Rise track “Manolo” — a team which had also previously performed to Lecrae’s “I’m Turnt”.
These songs were choreographed by Kiersten Willis, a member of the Suns Solar Squad, the hip-hop dance team of the Phoenix Suns.
Willis earned a spot on the Suns Solar Squad in 2010 while studying at Arizona State University (as well as WNBA team Phoenix Mercury’s hip-hop squad, which she choreographed Andy Mineo’s “Uno Uno Seis” and Tedashii’s “Dum Dum” for). But after graduation in 2013, she declined several opportunities to advance her dance career, left the Suns and, instead, went on a mission trip.
“Once you’re post-college, people expect you to get into a career and make money,” Willis said, “so a lot of people that I thought were supportive were second-guessing, especially the second year that I decided to go back on the mission trip.’”
Willis went on two nine-month mission trips across America with Breakdown International, a Christian non-profit which uses arts to spread the Gospel, and she needed to raise support to go. She went from performing at the US Airways Center in front of 18,000 people to — slightly less popular — asking for money.
“Some people didn’t understand whatsoever,” Willis said. “‘You sold your car? You’re not going to do this opportunity to make money, and to do what? … That really doesn’t make sense.’ And the fact that I was sharing some of the deepest darkest parts of my story made it that much more confusing. ‘Okay, so you’re leaving all this stuff to go travel the country and tell your dirt basically?’”
While on tour with Breakdown International, Willis got vulnerable, orchestrating her Christian testimony into dance routines at events.
As a college freshman, she had entered a relationship that became mentally, verbally and physically abusive. She lost her virginity — after planning on waiting until marriage — and only discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her when she acquired an STD. He had also hid his real age from her, as well as the fact that he had a child.
Willis shared her “dirt” with students in attendance so they would learn how she rebounded. God did a miracle, even healing Willis of her disease, she said, and her story changed lives.
“The impact of Kiersten’s testimony on young people all over the country was [immeasurable],” Derek Taylor, her tour director/road pastor, said. “She put it all out there even when there was laughing, scoffing and teasing… We know firsthand that those sitting in the audience were confronted with their own bad decisions and the consequences associated with them because of Kiersten’s bravery.”
After one event where Willis told her testimony, a young woman pulled her aside. She had suffered from nearly identical experiences as Willis.
“At that moment,” Willis said, “it was kind of like an understanding of what I was able to tell her, ‘If God brought me through it, He’s going to bring you through it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you.’”
Following the conclusion of Willis’s second mission trip, she finally got that job — just not the one she would’ve taken two years prior. She accepted a position as program coordinator and dance team leader at Elevate International, a Phoenix-based urban ministry founded by Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Dodgers chaplain Chad Johnson.
“I saw her passion, her commitment and her character, but then also her talent and gift,” Johnson said. “She’s really, really committed and sold out to the mission of the Gospel. [Hiring her] was a no-brainer.”
The now full-time missionary also returned to the Suns Solar Squad, where she continued to impact.
“She blessed my life in ways only the Lord knows!” Suns dancer Kaitlyn Prull said. “She showed me in many ways that if you feel something on your heart from God, listen to Him. We would be greeting fans together and I would ask her endless questions about Christ and she never hesitated to give me the honest truth. One game, in front of many fans, I was crying my eyes out and Kiersten took my hands and prayed with me in front of everyone. In that moment, I knew that Christ placed her there that season for a reason. Kiersten is an amazing woman of God that many people look up too so much, and I know that the Lord is going to keep using her as a blessing in so many more people’s lives!”
Follow Kiersten Willis on Twitter and Instagram at @kdotee