I think what’s important with the performing arts is recognizing that creativity and artistic expression are not things limited only to those who pursue them professionally.

In our previous Q & A, Joel Ivany from Against the Grain Theatre spoke about the importance of making art accessible to anyone as the arts are for everyone. Today’s Q & A features Kelly Slate, one half of the founding members of PushPULL Dance Inc., a company that embodies this very notion.

Photo credit: Raph Nogal (raphnogal.com)

Read about what drove Kelly and co-founder Rebecca Ho (who will be featured in a future post in the coming weeks) to create PushPULL Dance, which, beyond the company, is a close community of non-professional dancers from all walks of life, who meet to choreograph dances, create shows, and perform simply for the love of the art. Check out their upcoming show Wish You Were Here, and you might find yourself affected by, and infected with, the joy and passion in the dancers’ performances.

How would you describe your role in the performing arts? Is it what you had set out to achieve when you began your career, or did it change along the way?

I think what’s important with the performing arts is recognizing that creativity and artistic expression are not things limited only to those who pursue them professionally. There are many non-professional musicians, vocalists, actors, artists, and similarly dancers who benefit greatly from their involvement in the arts, albeit not on a professional level.

For me, dance has always been a significant part of my life. I started dancing at the age of three and never looked back. I went to a school for the arts and spent hours dancing outside of school. However, I never saw dance as my full-time career. I actually wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 12. But I recognized that dancing was a fundamental part of who I was, and not having that artistic outlet in my life left me feeling a bit empty when I started practicing law.

PushPULL Dance’s role in the performing arts community was to fill that void. I discovered that there were not a lot of opportunities for people with a love of dance to be able to perform and choreograph. While Toronto seemed to have several opportunities for high-level community theatre, choral, and instrumental mediums for artistic expression, there did not seem to be anything for people with a dance background. PushPULL tries to fill that void and provide an opportunity for dancers to continue to dance, create, and perform.

Profile picture of Kelly Slate

Kelly Slate, co-founder and artistic director of PushPULL Dance

What was the motivation behind the founding of PushPULL Dance Inc., a company of “non-professional dancers”? How has this non-professional aspect (and your mission to be inclusive) shaped the company and the kind of reception it has received?

As I mentioned,  PushPULL Dance Inc. was formed because something that was lacking in the Toronto dance community. As I started my legal career I tried to take drop-in classes to keep up with my dancing, but I found I missed the performance aspect of it and the creativity that comes with choreographing.

Nine years ago Rebecca and I found a small group of people who shared this frustration, so we started PushPULL Dance. I never anticipated back then that so many others would share our passion for dancing, all of whom also miss the opportunity to be part of a group working towards a common goal.

Over the years PushPULL has become a tight community of like-minded people coming from all careers and professions. Somehow it just seems to work. I think our motto, “Dancing professionals, not professional dancers,” has almost become our mantra. We strive to have an open environment and take in people who love to dance and want to improve their dance experiences, and who share in the passion and creativity that dance inspires. As a company we try to maintain a high level of dance while not taking ourselves too seriously. After all, we are not professional dancers, nor do we attempt to be.

In terms of our reception by the audience and wider community, the comment I frequently receive is that people love seeing the joy and energy PushPULL Dance has. What comes across is that we are all a part of PushPULL because we have a passion and joy for dance and that we are doing something, in our spare time, that we love. I often hear people say that watching a PushPULL show inspires them to take up an artistic hobby they may have given up. And, really, I couldn’t ask for a better compliment.

Photo credit: Raph Nogal (raphnogal.com)

Tell us more about your upcoming production, Wish You Were Here. What kind of experience can the audience expect?

Wish You Were Here is a collection of choreographed pieces created by our dancers around the theme of journeys and what that means to the choreographer. With some pieces it’s a literal journey, a travel, a new experience; with other pieces it’s about a personal journey, whether it’s dealing with relationships, struggles, or loss.

PushPULL Dance is a somewhat unique dance production experience because we do not focus on any particular style of dance, so from an audience perspective there is always something new around the corner. What one audience member may like may be completely different from what the person sitting beside them may be drawn to.

Hopefully the pieces this year will speak to different people for different reasons, depending on their own life’s journeys. More importantly, it’s our main goal to provide the audience with a fun night out, and hopefully we will accomplish that.

What do you see as the main challenges for dance in particular and performing arts in general? Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a performing artist?

I think the challenge for dance and the performing arts in general is making them accessible and welcoming to everyone. As people’s lives become more hectic and busy, artistic expression and attending performances unfortunately fall by the wayside. But it’s vitally important that the arts continue to be an integral part of the wider community.

The challenge is figuring out a way to keep the arts at the forefront of people’s minds. For dance in particular, there has been a resurgence in recent years due to television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars and to things like social media-created flashmob dances. But it’s a continuing challenge for the arts.

Photo credit: Raph Nogal (raphnogal.com)

In terms of personally, I think that ties into my previous comments. My professional career and family life take up a lot of time. My career is pretty intense and high stress at times, and it becomes very easy to push everything else to the side.

So my personal challenge is to not let that happen, because I am happiest when I have dancing, performing, and choreographing as a part of my life. I often use my opportunity to choreograph to express some of the frustrations I have with what I experience at work or in personal life, so it’s very important to me to maintain that artistic outlet and balance between the arts, career, and family.

What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?

To never lose sight of what you want to accomplish. There will definitely be hurdles along the way, and at times it will be frustrating, but try to keep the reason you are doing it at the forefront of your mind and the challenges will be overcome. That all sounds pretty cliché, but for me it’s true.