Sorry for the hiatus, but ‘Not Your Average Dancer’ is back and I promise this one’s a banger. Meet Sela Vai. A woman who is leading by example and creating the scaffold for other dancer’s to just be themselves. We’re lucky to have Sela Vai teach a one-off class on Monday Feb 19 in Sydney which you can book here.
Sela started dancing in primary school, but only started to take it seriously once she found the hip-hop crew life as a teenager. “Even at that age, I still didn’t quite grasp what it would take to get there,” Sela says, speaking on the idea of dance careers. When Sela started working she faced the realities of being a female dancer in the industry. Sela found herself in gigs where she had to fit into one of two moulds. “Being female…but also being a hip-hop dancer… I mean I train so hard in hip hop to do certain styles but then [I’m] asked to ‘pop-lock’ and [I’m] like ‘I’m sorry what? Can you look that up in the dictionary and tell me what that is?’…You’re the token hip-hop dancer, the hip-hop chick” Sela says. The other option is to be the hyper-sexualised “token female dancer” Sela says with disappointment. “[I have done] so many gigs where I felt like I didn’t even utilise any of the skill that I worked for. With all those little gigs that had no thought put into them, [I thought] is this what it’s gonna be as a dancer?”
Although disheartened, Sela knew there was potential for more. “It clicked for me when I felt validation as a dancer and choreographer.” Sela explains, “I wrote down a goal: I want to choreograph live shows for an Australian artist. By the end of the year I was on stage with Ngaiire performing my own choreography and in that moment I was like ‘this is crazy this actually happened! I wrote it down and it actually happened.’” It was a moment of realisation for Sela. She had booked a job where she could own the stage and showcase her own choreography to music she liked, whilst wearing costumes she felt comfortable in. “[I felt] so valued as an artist. I just loved everything about it” Sela says beaming. “That gig with Ngaiire…I was treated with so much respect. I wasn’t just a dancer they understood how imperative we were to their show.” From then on, Sela knew she would always work from this place of “Mutual respect. Not compensating or negotiating on who I am or what I have to do in order to just get the job.”
Furthermore Sela often found herself being identified as a Pacific Islander woman. Inspired by a specific encounter with two Tongan sisters who didn’t see Sela as ‘too Pacific Islander’, she decided it was time to visit Tonga for the first time in 2017. The trip came out of “want[ing] to understand where I come from and why that makes me who I am.” Since that experience, Sela adopted her current name. “Sela just means Sarah in Tongan. My name sake actually. My dad named me after his sister and it’s a no-brainer [because] ’r’ doesn’t exist in their alphabet.” Sela beams with pride and continues to explain “I think going to Tonga and being called Sela by everyone there made me want to wear my name with pride and make sure that people know my heritage.”
We aren’t the only ones who have noticed the path Sela has been carving. Aside from teaching nationally, Sela has been on the lineup for camps and intensives all around the world and her classes have sold out time and time again. Irrespective of her accolades she remains humbled and slightly overwhelmed by the platform she has been given. “Last year I felt like I was just holding on. [I’d think], ‘why am I on this panel, I think they just needed a female to make it look balanced’ but I use it. Even if I feel out of my depth, I use it.” When asked specifically about the things she wants people to take away, it’s clear Sela is all about empowering other artists, especially fellow Pacific Islanders. “Being a person with a platform is not about just existing [there]. It’s about a responsibility to strengthen and widen that platform…making space for more Pacific Islander artists [so] they can strive for more and take my place…[so they can] hopefully surpass me.”
To us here at Groove Therapy, Sela is such a beacon of light for young dancers. It’s hard to stay true to your gut and make decisions based on what feels right when it goes against the status quo. So we asked Sela to give us one last piece of advice, “Instead of writing down goals I just write down about the person I want to become, the morals I want to uphold and the type of people I want to inspire. That motivates me more than anything. Like, that literally makes me wanna do push ups. I see the path ahead and it’s not clear. It’s hazy and it’s foggy but I trust it because I know it’s my path. People can cross it and walk with me on it but no one else can own that path. It’s me, it’s mine.”
We could not have said it better ourselves.
Big love to you, Sela.
Sela is covering our Sydney class this Monday. Book your tix and catch your chance to learn from this legend.
Written by Amy Zhang