Karla Garcia’s dance career has led her to many achievements, including being on the brilliant television competition, So You Think You Can Dance, working with dance world icons such as Debbie Allen, and become a fantastic choreographer in her own right. She also has the distinction of being the first Filipina in the singular Hamilton: An American Musical. I recently spoke with Garcia about the power of theater, why representation matters, and what the themes of Hamilton mean to her.
How did you first get involved in dance?
My parents put me in a tap class when I was 3 years old, and I loved being on stage! Then, I attended a competitive dance studio in Oxon Hill, MD till I was 18. A lot of the alumni had danced on Broadway, so I was inspired to do the same.
Your first professional job was with the great Debbie Allen. What did you learn from working with her?
She was performing in the show with us, and I would see her warm up religiously before every show. She comes from that generation of true discipline matched with charisma and charm.
Can you describe how you felt the night you made your Broadway debut in Hot Feet?
I don’t even remember it, it’s such a blur! I was so young, but I knew I had to cherish that moment. Now, I really try to live in the present in those instances.
What did you learn from being in the fast-paced environment of Season 5 of So You Think You Can Dance?
SYTYCD was an invaluable learning experience. It was also the most stressful. Looking back, I am grateful to have been able to represent Filipinos on such a huge platform. Hopefully I inspired younger dancers, Filipino or not. I think it’s important for ALL young girls to see different ethnicities being showcased on TV.
As a swing in Hamilton: An American Musical, you cover all of the female ensemble track. That’s a lot of tracks! How do you keep each one compartmentalized? Do you use any memory tricks?
Feeling comfortable swinging this show definitely took over 6 months. The show has 49 songs, it is almost three hours long, and the ensemble is onstage for most of it. Honestly, the only way it got easier was when I would go onstage for each track again and again. Each time I would go on for a track, I would build on a sense memory. I would recall the lights, the set and actors around me, the harmonies I was singing, and the props I would use. It just got easier to separate each track.
As a swing, mistakes come with the territory. Another muscle I developed is being able to continue and perform fully after a mistake, being able to let it go. This definitely took work as I am a perfectionist and a sensitive person.
Your parents emigrated from the Philippines. How does that proximal family history impact how you relate to the central story in Hamilton about an immigrant founding father?
Hamilton’s journey reminds me of both my parents. My mom got her Masters at University of Maryland and worked her way up to be the Executive Assistant of the President of the National Academy of Sciences – his “right hand man”. My dad came here his senior year of high school. He went to college, started teaching at a college level, and then became a respected Attorney. Having a connection that goes deeper than any show I’ve done makes this job even sweeter. I really feel like I’m finally a part of a piece of art that not only feeds me creatively, but it powerfully represents ideas I believe in.
You have shared that your father passed away a few years ago. How has the loss affected how you relate to the theme of legacies in the show?
I think back to his service at my hometown parish. We told people about the funeral only two days before and it was on a Tuesday right smack in the middle of the work day. But that morning, the church pews were completely full. My Dad was the go-to Attorney in the Filipino community in my area. He was the legal counsel for many charities and Philippine organizations. Seeing the countless lives he had touched that day, I learned a lot about the idea of LEGACY. “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Though my parents argued often and eventually divorced, they both always strongly agreed on one thing, that my siblings and I were their biggest accomplishment. My dad and my mom taught us kindness, hard work, and fearlessness – values we continue to carry with us.
There is a line in the show that says, “This is not a moment, it’s a movement”. Do you think that theater can create a movement in terms of social change? What impact do you think Hamilton is having?
I think everyday theater is continuing to create social change. With organizations like Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids, the community brings light to the LGBT community. With popular shows like Dear Evan Hansen, Fun Home, and of course Hamilton, theater is making a dent on pop culture more now than ever.
In this social climate, I feel like Hamilton has come into the world for a reason. It’s like the world (our country especially) has gone into survival mode and a show like Hamilton was created just in time.
“The Backroom” choreography by Karla Garcia
What does it mean to you to be a Filipino-American? What are your thoughts about representation in the theater, especially in regards to recent conversations about casting opportunities for Asian-Americans?
I’ve always been proud of being Filipino, but I’ve never used this identity to define me. To me, my Filipino-American-ness is being family oriented, artistic, hard-working, and loving.
I was never cast in The King and I or Miss Saigon. I was always the ethnically ambiguous dance track in edgy shows like Wicked or The Addams Family. I was very grateful to be seen as a strong dancer and not just an “Asian” dancer. I have high hopes that this industry is working its way towards more diverse casting where Asians can be seen as normal/everyday people and not just people fresh off the boat with strong accents. I think Hamilton is paving the way for this. As ensemble members in the show, we represent the nation as it looks like now.
You came into the theater world through your dancing. What do you love about dance?
I love the idea that dancers are able to communicate an emotion without words. There are so many ways to express a feeling through your body. Whether it’s sadness, anger, lust, aggression, happiness, love, anxiety, playfulness; I love that there are no limits to how you can demonstrate intention through movement.
What current/future projects do you have outside of your work in Hamilton?
I teach Theater Jazz every Monday at the Broadway Dance Center. I teach many master classes and provide choreography for competitive dance studios in the tri-state. And in the Spring, I’m set to choreograph a new Off-Broadway show.
If you would like to find out more about Garcia and her upcoming projects, you can check out her website, http://www.karlagarciadance.com/