From pre-med to international performer

Eliotte Henderson, AB ’10, has appeared as dancer and singer on the Grammy’s and the MTV Video Music Awards, served as a background vocalist for The X-Factor and traveled the globe — twice — as a member of Taylor Swift’s band.

“At this point, I think my parents are finally convinced I can have a career in the performing arts,” Henderson says with a laugh. “Until recently, my mom still thought I was going to go to med school.”

Henderson, who goes by the stage name Eliotte Nicole, enrolled at Washington University as a pre-med student but was torn between studying to be a physician, like her father, or a performer, like her mother. So she completed her pre-med course work, but also majored in dance in Arts & Sciences and marketing at the Olin School. She also served as an Ervin Scholar, sang for the a capella ensemble Mosaic Whispers and helped coach Mr. Wash U contestants, including her future husband, Ryan Woodford, AB ’10. The couple now live in Los Angeles.

Here, Henderson shares how she found her path and what life is like with one of music’s biggest stars. Her journey, it turns out, is a lot like some of the Taylor Swift songs she performs.

‘Shake It Off’

Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Henderson dreamed of competing in the Olympics as a swimmer. But when an injury dashed her hopes, she took up dance to stay fit.

“My friends would tell me to go into dance, and I would think, ‘No way. Only girly girls do dance. I didn’t want to wear tights and dress in pink,’” Henderson says.

But Henderson got good fast, taking the Ronald Reagan High School Diamond Dancers to the national championships. What started out as a diversion was now her passion and possibly, Henderson started to wonder, her future.

‘All You Had to Do Was Stay’

Henderson stood out among her peers at Washington University, but she needed to know how she matched up against the nation’s top-tier dancers. So the summer after her sophomore year, she traveled to New York to study at Broadway Dance Center. Her plan was to dance every day, sign with an agency and book a job so that she would not have to return to school. She accomplished all three goals, scoring the lead in a Disney Live! Tour.

But mentor Cecil Slaughter, Washington University dance professor and founder of the Slaughter Project Dance Company, encouraged her to stay at Washington University.

“We had a heart to heart,” Henderson recalls. “I asked point blank, ‘Is this the right place for me to succeed at a high level?’ He told me that my education and training came down to me and my focus. I realized I could do what I needed in this program. Being in Cecil’s company, training in New York during the summers, meeting choreographers who came to St. Louis — that’s how I made a school that you wouldn’t (necessarily) think would be good for dance, good for dance.”

‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’

Henderson first met Swift when she was hired as a dancer for Swift’s performance of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. Henderson was not as familiar with Swift’s catalog at the time — Swift rose to popularity as a country singer and Henderson preferred listening to alternative, pop and Christian rock — but Henderson immediately liked Swift as a person and an artist.

“I felt like we really hit it off, and I enjoyed the process,” Henderson says. “She struck me as a kind-hearted and real person. Afterward, I thought I’d really like to work with her again.”

Later that year, Swift announced an open call for dancers for her Red Tour. Some 1,000 hopefuls showed up.

“L.A. is filled with dancers, and everyone wanted that job,” Henderson recalls.

Henderson advanced past the first round and then the next.

“Everyone is really talented,” Henderson says. “But there is more to the process than picking the best. You are building a cast. Height matters; hair color matters. You are visually trying to create a look to stand behind an artist.”

Henderson was selected but — surprise! — not as a dancer. During the auditioning process, Henderson had mentioned that she was also a vocalist. Swift liked what she heard.

“Taylor told me, ‘I know you auditioned to be a dancer, but I love your energy and would like you to join the band as a backup vocalist. Would you be okay with that?’ And I was like, ‘Duh — of course,’” Henderson says. “That’s how it started.”

‘Wildest Dreams’

Henderson recently wrapped up her second world tour with Swift. The 1989 World Tour stopped in 85 cities across North America, Australia, Asia and Europe, and it reportedly took in $251 million, making it the highest-grossing tour of 2015.

“It was crazy,” Henderson says. “You are so busy that you really don’t have an opportunity to stand back and absorb what is happening. But it was a dream to be in a band with so many amazing artists. I learned a lot.”

Along the way, she made a close friend. Swift was there when Henderson and Woodford exchanged vows, or as People breathlessly reported, “Taylor Swift Parties at Coachella and Attends Friend’s Wedding 1,200 Miles Away – in the Same Day!”

“Now that we’ve been friends for a couple of years, it’s funny how similar she is to the rest of my friends,” Henderson says. “Being with someone who makes you laugh and think in the same conversation is really special. As a strong, educated woman, I really value that. I’ll work for her as long as she will have me.”

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