Interview with Tré Armstrong
by Maia Alvina
If you’re anything like me, the only program you run home to or schedule your life around is a little show called So You Think You Can Dance.
Each week, I embark on the dancer’s journey with them. I’m that audience member who sits at the edge of my seat as a panel of Dance World hotshots judges them until one is left standing.I often find myself asking, “What did they do in their lives to deserve to be someone who helps choose the fate of Canada’s Favourite dancer?” What’s THEIR story?
So when my friend told me to sign up for “Give it Back”, a free dance day in Toronto thrown by Tré Armstrong (one of the judges and choreographers from the show), I jumped at the chance to meet her.
I walked through the doors of the National Ballet School of Canada and my knees started to give out instantly. It’s the same feeling I get before an advanced class or an audition. I looked around and thought to myself, “I wish I could have danced here as a little girl. I wish my mom and dad paid for me to be the best damned ballerina so I could be the dancer I am in my dreams” (I’m not bitter).
It felt empty in there until I got off the elevator and reached the sweat factory on the 4th floor. The murmur of excitement filled the hallway as crowds of dancers emerged from around the corner and suddenly, my nervousness was gone.
The dancers were from all walks of life. Mainly teenagers, but there were adults there too. Cameras were in full effect as the media was spread out interviewing the choreographers, dancers and filming the classes.
I found the registration booth and I’m told by one of the volunteers that I can pick up to 5 classes. 5 bloody classes with master choreographers that would usually go up to more than a hundred bucks, easily. I signed up for Jazz-Funk, African, Hip Hop and Jive (I brought lots of water).
I heard the mellow voice of Ms. Armstrong behind me and turned to see her hugging and talking to everyone she encountered. I overheard her saying things like, “What do you think? I like the feel of this one…It’s chill right? Not “conference-like” where it’s all “up here”’. I got that. There was no air of celebrity or judgement or exclusivity. She opened up the doors of a prestigious studio to everyone, got not just good dancers to teach but good teachers. She threw away her status and asked everyone to do the same and gave Toronto an entire day of dance, accessible to all. The only requirements: no street shoes and make sure to stretch and hydrate!
I stop her and say “Tré, sit down with me for a while. I want to talk to you”. She dropped everything and said Let’s go. Wherever you want. Forget about the fact that she’s a TV personality; most people aren’t that present and nice.
I say It’s great that you’re doing this. But, why?
Tré: I want to make dance accessible. I want to give back. I want to bring the “celebs” down and in front of the kids.
Maia: What got you here? What was your journey like? Was it positive and easy or an uphill climb?
T: Ok, let’s start from the beginning. I started dancing at the age of 5. I took ballet, tap, jazz and hip-hop. I was told early on that I could never be a ballet dancer because of the way I looked. You could just imagine what this did to a young girl. I loved nothing more than to dance. I didn’t understand at the time what that meant but it killed me.
Then, when I was 17, all I wanted was to be a dance teacher’s assistant. The people in charge said I had to be 18 to get the job and turned me down. Then immediately after they turned around and gave the job to a 15-year old who let’s just say looked very, very different from me.
(What she said next struck a chord with me, because every great artist seems to utter these same words before they realize their potential…)
T: So I stopped dancing. For years, I just stopped.
M: Wow. What saved you?
T: In University, my brother was always a part of dance groups and sports and he just said to me, “you need to choreograph”. I kept saying no and fighting it for a long time. But one day I realized that he was right and that I could do this. And I never looked back.
M: Was there a point in your life when you just knew that you’d be this successful? Like, you saw yourself here and this big with dance?
T: I knew I was good. I knew that I could dance. But it’s when I realized that I do more than just dance, I create, and that made me believe I was going to be successful. But nowhere near this. I never saw myself here.
M: Was your family supportive?
T: Take a look. My mom is right there (pointing), that’s my brother, the one who pushed me (pointing) and that’s my other brother down there talking to the press (pointing).
M: What’s your advice to the young dancers out there who aren’t fortunate to get that kind of support? There are a lot of kids out there that don’t have people close to them telling them what that person said was wrong.
T: There’s so much out there now. Just look out into the community and the online world. Just search and do your homework. There’s so much opportunity to connect out there and you’ll find that support and people just like you. Also, keep practicing.
M: So Tré, here’s what I’m trying to do. My ambition is to be Toronto’s go-to ‘all things to do with dance’ expert. I’ve got the social media stuff going. What’s your advice on how to make something like this last?
T: Own and perfect the back-end. Learn every single day. Commit to it. Make sure you’re credible. Anyone can blog or be online. Think about what will make you different. What will make them go to you? Have your own opinion and brand it.
M: So you’re on SYTYCD, you have this Give it back day, you hold classes and travel all over the world. What’s your end goal? Like, your Big Hairy Audacious Goal – at the end of your life, you’re going to look back and say what?
T: I want to be the Oprah of Canada. That’s it. I want to find my “O”
M: Your success has clearly shown you the world. You’ve been everywhere dancing, teaching, touring, judging and acting, so I’m sure you’ve been faced with a lot of different dance scenes and cultures. Compared to other places you’ve been to, what do you find wrong or lacking in Toronto’s dance scene? And what do you think the downfalls can be attributed to?
T: Oooh, that is a good question. The thing about Toronto is we have it all. It’s like we’re the incubation center for talent. Really, it’s the perfect place for dance to live. But there’s just no money. We don’t pay our dancers here enough. We don’t view dance or the arts like other places do or get the same support. You go to New York, Europe and Montreal even, and dance is huge. There’s not enough funding here. That’s why dancers from Toronto go elsewhere for their professional careers.
M: And what are you doing to help fix this?
T: Well, all of this (she motions around her) is put together by my company A New D.A.E.I (Dance Academy for the Entertainment Industry). “Give it Back” started 4 years ago. Right now it’s annual, but I want to make it bi-annual. It’s all a part of my ‘Tré Armstrong Give Back Foundation’. I hope to develop life skills through dance and our teachings. In turn, doing all these things is my way of giving back to dance. I’m showcasing artists, helping the dance community get connected to people and hopefully educating people on the importance of dance and the importance of empowering youth to be able to dance.
We finished up, hugged each other as if we’ve danced together for our whole lives and wished each other good luck in our respective endeavors. I looked at the time and realized that I had Jean-Marc Genereux for a Jive lesson in less than 3 minutes so I grabbed my dance shoes and ran down the hall. My stomach was in knots from the excitement.
Each class was fun and challenging. The fact that I got to try all kinds with amazing teachers served as a reminder that art needs a place not only to live but to thrive. Without things like this, and dancers like Tré who in their lives have come full circle by ‘giving back’ to the dance community, kids and adults will have limited access to the amazing opportunities that await them.
It was a beautiful day.
For more information about A New D.A.E.I or the Tré Armstrong Give it back foundation, please visit these links: