Howard County Times
Howard County

'Kinderman' continues to delight children after 30 years

After convincing his mostly preschool audience to chant, "Dance, Kinderman, dance" a few times, John Taylor pretended to timidly oblige.

But he cleverly surprised his young spectators when he flamboyantly cocked his right hip and unleashed a sample of the flashy footwork and smooth moves that long ago earned him the title of Disco King.

The exuberant 2- to 6-year-olds screamed their approval, smitten by the mischievous leader with the wide grin and calming voice as he led the church school's students and staff through 45 minutes of learning wrapped up in movement and song.

At age 75, the longtime Columbia resident is still casting his spell after nearly 30 years as Kinderman, his rhyming alter ego. He says he has "no plans to retire until I expire."

"Some people tell me I'm lucky, but this [career] isn't about luck," he said after a recent performance, during which he wore his trademark black derby, red jacket and bow tie. "It's my purpose in life to be doing what I'm doing."

In recognition of his unwavering commitment to teaching and inspiring audiences of all ages, Taylor will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Howard County Arts Council, which will be presented March 24 at the 15th Annual Celebration of the Arts Gala.

This year, after multiple past nominations for a "Howie" award, Taylor will instead receive a special Legacy in the Arts Award, one that's only been given out four times. The annual Howie awards will also be presented the same evening to Tom Benjamin, Brooke Kuhl-McClelland, and Mays and Associates. The fundraiser is open to the public.

"John has a really special connection with kids and brings joy to classrooms throughout the state," said Coleen West, the council's executive director. While children are Taylor's focus, he also performs for seniors and instructs children's educators, among other projects, she noted.

"He has worked a long time and made significant contributions to the arts over the decades," West said. "He's an artistic treasure here in Howard County and we're fortunate to have him as an arts ambassador."

Taylor writes simple melodies and chants about colors, shapes and ABCs, then liberally sprinkles in life lessons about the importance of friendship and loving one another. It's a rhythm-and-rhyme recipe that has served him well.

When he settled on his stage persona over 25 years ago, all of the components of his act jelled, he said.

"Kids don't remember people's names. But they do remember Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. So, I became Kinderman. I even bought an old limo and made it into the Kindermobile," he said.

All that ultra-hype now belongs to another time, when he was doing 500 shows a year and traveling to every state except Alaska, he said.

"I tell people that I'm doing about 100 shows now and they say, 'Aww, what happened?'" he said. "Nothing 'happened.' I'm 75 years old — that's it!"

Taylor grew up in Baltimore around dancers and developed a burning desire that matched his natural talent at a very young age, he said.

"My mother, Blanche, was an acrobatic dancer working for tips when she was expecting me, and when I was born she said the doctor told her I'd come out dancing," he said with a grin.

Friday nights at the Taylor home were filled with his parents' friends who came together to dance, play cards and eat. As a precocious 4-year-old, Taylor danced for the adults and they threw money at him, coins he saved in a piggy bank to buy a fire engine, he recalled.

As a student at Frederick Douglass High School years later, he joined a dance troupe and won a $25 first-place award for his skills.

"I just knew I was 'it' after that; I believed my own press," he joked. But after traveling to New York to find fame and being rejected for a part in "West Side Story," he returned home to attend Morgan State University.

Right after graduation, an art teacher suddenly quit in Baltimore County and Taylor found himself teaching in Catonsville, one of only two segregated schools where blacks were permitted to teach in 1959, he said, with Dundalk being the other. He later earned his master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

But after 18 years, a career in dance still beckoned and he left teaching to work as an instructor in a dance studio until that job evaporated. He next improvised by becoming the Disco King just to keep the paychecks coming in.

Taylor taught popular disco-era dances like the Hustle to packed crowds at Columbia's village centers and even gave disco lessons to Oprah Winfrey in 1978 when she was co-hosting a WJZ talk show with Richard Sher. He also taught the waltz, salsa and ballroom dancing.

When the disco phenomenon faded after a two-year heyday, he transformed himself into the Aerobics Czar as an instructor in Jazzercise, which combined dance and exercise.

"There are no accidents in life," Taylor said. "God keeps leading me through various things, and hearing the Spirit is just like listening to the radio."

Since "the only constant is change," as Taylor likes to say, he changed course again when he realized that entertaining kids was his true calling.

"At first I thought everyone could improvise and write songs the way I could," he said. "But I soon understood that I could have a great impact on children's lives."

His pursuit of a career as a teaching artist was bolstered in 1981 when he became associated with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. He still maintains a relationship with the Virginia-based foundation's early learning institute.

"Wolf Trap taught me how to market myself," and the makeover into Kinderman followed four years later, he said.

That early success led Taylor, who never married, to decide to purchase a house in Owen Brown, where he still resides.

And as part of his evolving act, he hired Dillon Clarke as Kindertwin, singing harmony and accompanying Taylor on the keyboard among other duties. The fourth in a succession of like-named assistants, Clarke has been part of the act for 14 years.

Mimi Flaherty Willis, Wolf Trap's senior director of education, says Taylor is "one of the country's most generous and genuine performers."

She acknowledged that he has a knack for grabbing audience members and thoroughly entertaining them with his unique energy, but adds there's "something else" going on.

"He is theirs; he belongs to them and they know it," she said, an observation she's developed over her 20 years of working with Kinderman and seeing the intimate rapport he has with audiences.

"He didn't go off to New York, though he could have," Flaherty Willis said. "He's one of those working artists who has made a commitment to his community and stayed put."

In looking back over his long and varied career, Taylor said one universal truth has emerged.

"Kids need to know you love them and then they learn to love others," he said. "That's a skill we all need."