Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

Master of Reinvention: An Interview with Joffrey Ballet Icon Christian Holder

Dance icon Christian Holder reflects on a career where reinvention is the key to his longevity, from designing for Tina Turner to singing Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye in his new cabaret show.

How did you start designing dresses for Tina?

I was just head over heels in love with what Tina did, her voice, everything. I would get JET Magazine, Sepia, Ebony. They all had little articles on her, so I knew she was Sagittarian. I knew when her birthday was. I knew she was 5’4″. I knew her vital statistics. It was 34-26-36. I knew all that. Then she’d be on television and I would just always watch. I started learning the routines and seeing when they would change.

The dress that I made was one of the first rag dresses. Being a dancer, I was aware of what the hair was doing. There should be movement, which is different from a mini. It’s a different statement. Around that time, the album Nutbush City Limits (1973) came out, and on the cover, she’s there kicking an old jalopy and there are haystacks and outhouses. It’s real hillbilly stuff. I thought, Oh wow that’s like the musical Li’l Abner. That means Nutbush is like Dogpatch. Tina could be Daisy Mae, who had patches that were ripped. I thought, That’s cool but there’s something innately elegant about Tina. What if the rags that I design were once-elegant evening dresses and they just got shredded? That’s how that look began.

The dress was long, but cut and shredded up to the panty line. There were these streams of fabric. It was a fabric that moved. It was called lurex, which was like a metallic knit, and it had a luster. I was just sculpting around what I saw her doing. The first dress had bat wings, dolman sleeves, shredded. The shoulders were cut out because in the second dance break in “Get Back”, Tina would do this little shuffle. At the back, it’s blouson, so you could see she wasn’t wearing a bra and it was open. That was because in “I Wanna Take You Higher”, Tina and the girls would turn their backs to the audience. They’d do this shimmy and this big backbend.

Ike & Tina were going to be at what was Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, August 1973. I knew the presenter, a gentleman called Ellis Haizlip. Dots connected and he knew who I was. I made the phone call. I said, “I have made this dress for Tina. Is there any way I can get to her?” He said, “Yeah, Christian. Sure. Meet me in the lobby before the show. I’ll take you back to the dressing room.” I had the dress folded up. It was in a brown paper bag. I wasn’t a professional dressmaker. I didn’t have a label. I didn’t have a card. It was just clutched in my hands because, in my mind, I’m going to present her with the bag. That was the plan.

Ellis takes me backstage. He’s about to knock when someone taps him on the shoulder. “Mr. Haizlip? There’s an emergency …” “I’ve got to go, Christian. There’s the door.” I bang on the door. I don’t know who it was that opened the door. “Yeah?” “I have something for Tina.” “She’s about to go onstage. She can’t be disturbed now, kid.” “Well, could you please see that she gets this? It’s from Christian Holder. I made this dress as an offering for my love for her work.” “Yeah, okay. Sure, kid.” He takes the bag. The door swings closed in my face. I go out and watch the show. Threw it up to God. I’d made my gesture. This was August 1973.

Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

January 1974, the Joffrey Ballet are on tour. We always did the midwest in the thick of winter. We were going to Kansas City. After the gig, we went to a club. There was a cigarette machine and there was a poster behind the cigarette machine that said “Ike & Tina Turner — Memorial Hall. Kansas City, KS”. I thought Oh my God! We’re close by! We can talk to the company manager. There’s a travel day and then a day off and then rehearsals, so we’ll be there for rehearsal but we have to see this show.

I rented a car and we drove to Memorial Hall. There are four of us. We get four tickets. Really lovely seats, center. Eight o’clock comes around. I think by that time the band might have been called Family Vibes because they changed the name from Kings of Rhythm. They come on stage and they open with the “Theme from Shaft“. Then the Ikettes come on. The girls’ line-up changed quite often. Esther hadn’t been there for a while. It was Esther, Edna — who’s now LeJeune — and Jean. The act hasn’t changed that much. I think they started with “You Got Me Hummin'” and then they did “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles”.

Then Ike comes on. He’s in red. The bandleader does his spiel: “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Tina Turner!” Blackout. Pin spot over to the wings. Tina walks out of the wings in the dress that had been in the brown paper bag six months before!

I just turned into this chocolate mess, like Olive Oyl in Popeye — screaming, with arms flailing. [laughs] I just sat there and cried because I saw everything that I designed the dress to enhance was working and she was doing it in front of my eyes! It was an out-of-body experience, so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to go backstage.

Tina Turner in performance, wearing the first “rag dress” that Christian Holder designed for her.

When I got home to New York, I attached a swatch of the fabric to a letter and sent it to Bolic Sound, which was the studio. I got this beautiful letter — I still have the letter — two sides of one sheet of paper:

“Dear Christian, so lovely to hear from you. I’ve only been trying to reach you for a year. At first I thought you were a seamstress but, now that I know you’re not, it means so much more to me. I love the dress. Ike, too, loves the dress. It doesn’t show perspiration and we can roll it up. I’ve about worn it out and would love if you could make as many as your time would allow. This is the number where we can be reached if you’re ever in Los Angeles. Love, Tina.”

We ended in Vancouver. I rented a car and went all the way down to LA. I have my meeting with Tina at Bolic Sound. She showed me the various recording studios. There were three of them. We went up to the apartment. She’s talking a mile a minute. She’s making salad. She made chicken and dumplings with hot water cornbread. She was basically making it for Ike. She said, “Ike has been up for five days straight. You know how musicians are …”

When everything goes in the oven, she says, “So what have you got for me this time?” I had four new dresses. She tried them all on. Ike was in the bedroom. She’d go in and show Ike and then she’d come back out. Ike was thrilled. Something told me to make something for Ike. Maybe because I knew male egos! I made him some cowboy chaps. I don’t know if he ever wore them but when I told Tina “These are for Ike”, she took those in.

I met Ike and then she said, “Ike, I’m gonna take Christian over to the house because I want him to look at shoes.” It was only five minutes away. She had a silver Jaguar. I think it might have been the one that Sammy Davis, Jr. bought for her. We go there and I met the four boys. There was a black Great Dane called Onyx. Then she took me into the master bedroom. She opened her closet. “These are all my dresses. Here’s the first one I got from you. Here’s ‘mother’. I can still wear it but it’s got a little run. I tried to have it copied but of course, you could never copy an original.” Then she throws herself on the floor and says, “Look at the shoes … Pumps for the bronze dress. Look! The exact same shade of red! Can you do anything with this?” That was my first meeting.

I came away with a check. I tried to refuse it. “No, no, no, no. I need nine dresses a year, at least. Can you do that?” I had my career but yes I can do that, even if I’m sewing in my dressing room.

Christian Holder
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio/Rebel Media

I’d been given a lift to the studio but I needed to call a taxi to go home. She put on rubber gloves because she was dying some wigs in the garage area and she was rinsing out the wigs. Her complete persona changed. She said, “You know Chris … Can I call you Chris? What sign are you?” “I’m Gemini.” “Oh, my moon’s in Gemini. We’re gonna get along just fine. You know, Chris, it was great that all of a sudden I got this dress out of nowhere and I thought, What am I gonna do with that? When I put it on and I saw what it did, I knew that this was something special. I’ve been chanting for whoever made that dress to come into my life — you know, Buddhist chants — and here you are.” She had started chanting late-’73, which was around the time that I delivered the dress. What are the universal odds that in Kansas City, she would choose to wear that dress and I, a New Yorker, would be in the audience?

The area that the house was in was View Park, Olympiad Drive. There were a lot of Black singers and people who lived there. The taxi driver arrived and there’s Tina silhouetted in the doorway. I get into the taxi and the driver says, “Oh is that Nancy Wilson?” [laughs] It’s a perfect cinematic scene with the punchline!

And that’s how it began. Tina would travel to New York. I would see her. There’d be another dress or sometimes there was someone who worked for United Artists [Records] whom I knew, who was a friend of my friend Margo Sappington, and they had a mail pouch that would go to LA. I would do a dress and deliver it. Most of them worked. They were all basically variations on a theme, which was the rags.