Kara Chan, a fourth-year dancer in Juilliard’s Dance Division, has illuminated the stage of many a Juilliard dance performance I have attended. In the course of our interview, she exuded a wisdom and poise far beyond her years. Her generosity of spirit graces the questions below.
I’ve been fortunate to see you perform in many Juilliard dance performances over the years. How did you come to study dance?
Well, I was always one of those kids that would turn on the music on the stereo and dance and skip around the couch – there are so many recordings of me just doing my own thing. I was always an active child so that’s why my parents decided “Oh, she loves dance. Let’s put her in dance classes.” So I started recreationally at the age of 5. I relocated to a pre-professional training studio at age 10. I later went to high school that had a half day program, so it allowed me to do my academics which was a very important part of my life and do my training in the afternoons. It fulfilled so much for me and there was never a question of not dancing after high school. Dance has always been a really important part of my life.
Tell us about your native Vancouver.
I’m from North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is very beautiful. It’s very green and it’s just a beautiful place with lots of mountains and trees and nature. It rains a lot which helps with the beauty of Vancouver, but I love it. I miss that aspect of it while being here. It’s a place where you can disconnect into the peace of nature. There is hiking and during the winter, all winter sports: skiing, snowshoeing, cross country (which I really love doing).
Who inspires you?
In general, I find inspiration from people who really have a drive and a passion for what they’re doing. It’s their outlook on life, their optimism, and making the most of it, for sure. Being surrounded by so many wonderful human beings as well as artists, I definitely can say that I’ve been inspired every day. It is so wonderful to be in an environment of people that want to be pursuing their art form and are wonderful human beings as well. I think the arts bring people together. I admire people that share the same work ethic and anyone who brings the best out of you; any mentor or person who sees the best in you and believes in your potential to grow and to continue evolving and learning.
Is there any one person that has been especially mentoring of you at Juilliard?
Charla Genn, who teaches ballet class at Juilliard. She embodies all of these things I just mentioned. She’s very demanding of course, but it’s all a part of wanting the best from you and she’s so generous, so caring, and really wanting to invest in you. She sees everyone as a unique individual and makes them feel special – I think that’s a really special quality to have.
What other endeavors do you feel passionately about?
Being at Juilliard so many of my memorable experiences have been outside the dance studio. Participating in Educational Outreach, doing Gluck, as well as teaching with the CLIMB fellowship and Arts Enrichment. I think it’s really important to develop and hone the skills as a teaching and performing artist as well as focusing on the pursuit of your career, because it informs what you do so much by being in the front of the studio. I really love teaching and sharing what I know with the New York community. I also really love Yoga. When I go back home for spring or winter break, it gives me a sense of groundedness, balance, and the ability to tap into my inner strength.
What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
Definitely the costs. Traveling home to here, and finding scholarship opportunities, which ties together. As a graduating student I’m starting to deal with visa things. Dance companies sometimes specify in their auditions that they only can look for dancers who either are U.S. citizens or hold a valid green card, so that ultimately cuts you off from being seen. This limits the options as an international dancer looking for work. I’ve come to realize that if a company is interested in you they have to take on that financial burden of your visa if they want to have you be a part of their collective. So that’s another challenge that is sort of new that I’ve discovered.
What was your transition like to the U.S.?
Before coming to Juilliard, I never spent a long period of time away from home, so the transition going into a big city was very exciting for me. I really loved being independent and finding what that was like to live. I actually wasn’t home sick my first year at all. I think it’s just the nature of being here and finding a community of people where you feel like you built a family. I do love the fast pace of New York City because I’m a very quick walker, but I think that has come from being in the city too. Coming to the U.S. I’ve definitely developed a broader perspective and an open mind. The diversity that exists in this city is so wonderful and so unique, so I think that’s special.
What are the differences you’ve noticed between Canada and the U.S.?
The holidays are much more commercialized and blown up here [in the U.S.]. Definitely, we know the U.S. as in larger portion sizing, so that was interesting. Canadians are often teased for being too polite, saying “sorry” when it’s not necessary. Oh, and I apparently have a Canadian accent in pronouncing words like “bag,” “bagel,” and “sorry.”
What aspect of Canada do you miss the most?
I love seeing the mountains, fresh clean air, and fresh water. Vancouver has the best water, I think. And being in nature. Central Park is beautiful, however, it’s amidst the tall buildings. Vancouver offers the sites, the nature, the greenery, the mountains and all the things you can do in terms of being outdoors – hiking, taking walks, etc.
What is the most common misconception of Canada?
I get this a lot: “Oh, you’re from Canada. It must be so cold”, or “Oh, you’re used to it here” as though you shouldn’t even be complaining it’s cold. It depends on where – of course if you’re living more back east like in Montreal and Toronto it can get cold in the winters. However, Vancouver is very pleasant – it’s a rain forest. Everyone thinks if you’re from Canada, you are used to wearing a parka all year round. That’s not the case and people think that you’re really talky and I’m not. What else? The temperature thing, Fahrenheit to Celsius – that was an adjustment. I haven’t converted to knowing what Fahrenheit is in relation to Celsius. I still look at my phone.
In reflecting on your experience in the US, what are the first three words that come to mind?
Opportunity. Diversity. Learning.