My first participatory experience in the arts was through dance. My mom’s mother was in the New York Corps de Ballet and a Rockette. She put her daughter in dance lessons as a child, and I was next. My instructors instilled in me a sense of purpose, determination, drive, passion, and discipline that I I hope to pay forward inside my speech room. Dancing is what got me into theatre, and has also gotten many of my students in all grade levels to come into their own and express themselves. It’s currently recital season for many of my students, and I couldn’t let it pass by without talking to one of my favorite dancers on Broadway. I had the pleasure of speaking with Karla Garcia, who is a talented dancer, creative choreographer, and encouraging teacher. She is currently performing in Hamilton eight shows a week, but I’ve been following her career since seeing her in the out-of-town run of Hot Feet!, on television competing on America’s Best Dance Crew, and So You Think You Can Dance Season 5. Here’s our conversation on dance, creativity, and collaboration.
StageSLP: What got you into dance, and what made it stick for you?
Karla: I took my first tap class at 3, and I loved how it felt to move and be onstage!
S: How did you get into theatre?
K: When I was 12, I saw my cousin in The Lion King and Fosse, and said “I want to do that!”
S: As a teacher and Broadway performer, do you still take class?
K: I try to cross train and go to the gym to do light weight training. I like taking ballet classes for alignment. It really all depends on how hectic my schedule is. The most important thing for me is that I do a good warm up or ballet barre before the show.
S: How do you create your choreography? Music first? Steps first? Idea first? Improv?
K: Everything at the same time. Whichever inspires me. For class, I’ll pick a piece of music and get motivated by the sound, rhythm, and tone. I’ll start to improv, and realize how this song makes me feel. This dictates the idea. For a show, the story and concept will be set … most likely the music is as well. From there, I put myself in the feel and circumstance of the situation. Then I’ll use the music to improvise and motivate my movement in this mindset.
S: What does choreographing do for you that dancing others’ choreography does not, and what does dancing others’ work do for you that choreographing does not?
K: Doing other people’s choreography that I LOVE, like Andy Blankenbeuler’s in Hamilton, not only feels rewarding as a dancer to perform good material, but it greatly inspires me as a choreographer! Then when I choreograph, I know a dancer’s perspective, which helps with making sense of certain movement. I know what feels good. Both sides definitely go hand in hand.
S: What inspires you to create?
K: My dad was a musician and playwright. Music has always been a large part of my life and a trigger to move and visualize feeling and stories. Emotion is definitely a driving force. I have a very sensitive spirit, and when my heart feels a certain way, it motivates me to express it through movement.
S: What have you learned from dance that you wouldn’t have learned from another activity that can be applied to your daily life?
K: Great Question! When I dance, I can express my emotions in an enhanced form! It’s the best therapy. Afterwards, I can go through my day feeling lighter and more in charge. It’s an outlet for the soul unlike anything else. It’s a true mind, body, and spirit release!
S: I’ve gotten to take class from you, and you’re so enthusiastic and supportive as an instructor! How did you develop your teaching style?
K: I know when I take class, I enjoy a teacher who is encouraging but challenging at the same time. Also, being too serious is not personality. I like to have fun with my students, so we can all achieve a high level of greatness together!
S: How did singing come into your repertoire?
It was sort of survival of the fittest when I added singing to my skill set. After a while, I couldn’t book jobs just based on my dancing. To perform in musical theatre, you HAVE to sing. I really had to find the proper way to use my voice and the right audition songs that showed my range.
S: What do you do to protect your voice?
K: I can’t yell a lot, or it will really affect my singing. When I teach dance classes to a large group of dancers, I need to use a microphone. I also try to warm up a bit before the show and do tongue stretches.
S: Do you have any tips for breath support while singing and dancing?
K: When you’re exhausted on stage, it’s easy to breathe through your chest. I just try to be super aware of breathing from my diaphragm when my body is tired from dancing.
S: As a performer, it’s your job to collaborate with others and work as a team. What advice can you give to my students on that?
K: Being in a show is like being a piece of an intricate moving vehicle. All the parts have to function together or it won’t work. Even the leads have to be mindful of where the ensemble is during different scenes and staging. There are no stars. The show is the star, and everyone has to work together to help tell the story.
S: Do you have any suggestions on how to be a productive member of a team?
K: Keep your ears open and listen carefully and assess before making suggestions or asking questions. They might be answered already. Be open to change and adjustment. If you feel strongly, don’t feel afraid to speak up, but always do so with respect and humility.
S: How do you build up your confidence to put yourself and your work out there time after time?
K: Just like anything, the more drafts you create, the better you get. I’ve started really figuring out what I value in choreography. I’ve learned to step back and see the big picture. I also like to listen to an outside eye that I respect. I learn more and more after every new creation. With each new step comes more confidence AND more desire to share my point of view! I’m not too opinionated as a person, but choreography is definitely my way of expressing myself and how I view life.
S: How do you switch your perspective from yourself to a character and back over the course of a show?
K: I like to bring a bit of myself TO a character no matter who I’m playing. I believe in honesty as a performer even when you’re playing someone else.
S: You’re a part of the biggest show on Broadway, and I bet that can get to be overwhelming. What calms you down and keeps you grounded?
K: My family and longtime close friends.
S: What’s your most memorable performing experience, either onstage or as an audience member?
K: I have a few. Most recently, getting to perform during the matinee the morning after Trump was elected was incredible. I never felt so proud to perform material that spoke my values and beliefs so loudly!
S: What advice would you give to your elementary school self?
K: I would say to get out of your head and not care what people think! I wish I came out of my “shy shell” a lot earlier.
S: Every week I give my readers and students a challenge and encourage them to try new things. What would you challenge them to do?
K: I welcome them to try one of my morning rituals. When you wake up, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Open them. Look around at your walls, your bed, out the window. Take in the moment and be grateful for all that surrounds you. Go through specific things or people in your life that you are thankful for. Really FEEL this gratitude through your bones all the way to your toes. Start your day with this blanket of love and a realization that you are so “lucky to be alive right now!”
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to hear Karla’s perspective on performing and creating. I know my students will be able to take her advice on teamwork and apply it to group work in school. As a dancer myself, her responses were some of my truths as well. I know all dancers are different, we all bring something unique to the artform, but our connection to the work is what keeps us connected. Karla is one of the most fun and bubbly instructors I’ve taken class from, and if you ever get the opportunity to take one of her classes, go for it. The speech nerd in me did a happy dance when she mentioned teaching with a microphone. This is a really smart vocal hygiene practice for anyone working in loud environments that allows for amplification. This is something we tell people all the time and it usually goes ignored, or is accompanied with an eyeroll. I know I am looking forward to trying her morning ritual, and am eager to see what my students think of it as well. My little ones may be too squirmy, but I think my older students will gain some perspective from such a task. I may even make it a “calm down” option in the speech room for when a student needs a break.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP