Arts·Point of View

This Toronto artist is remixing street dance with Filipino tradition

Toronto choreographer Fly Lady Di chased her dream to study house dance, and now she's remixing the street style with a traditional art form.

Look for HATAW's Fly Lady Di "waacking" at the head of the crew. The artist tells her story to Amanda Parris

As a member of HATAW, Toronto choreographer Diana Reyes (a.k.a. Fly Lady Di) has been bringing house-dance moves to traditional Filipino folk dance. The fusion leaves Amanda Parris in awe. (Photo: Natalie Caine/Courtesy of Diana Reyes)

Toronto is a city that encourages the fusion of different things. From Chinese-Jamaican buffets to hip-hop bomber jackets made from South-Indian textiles, the diversity of the city sparks collaborations that connect formerly disparate cultures and ideas.

One of those projects is DATU, a modern Filipino tribal music crew that CBC Arts has covered in the past (and full disclosure, Exhibitionists' senior producer Romeo Candido is a member of the group). They're a perfect example of how the city is home to this kind of rich experimentation, and their 2015 video for "Suns" has always stuck with me. It features their sister group, HATAW, a troupe that fuses Filipino folk dance with contemporary styles, and though I've known dancer and choreographer Diana Reyes (a.k.a. Fly Lady Di) for years, watching her in this video — poised and precise, strong and graceful — I was left in awe.

Take a look for yourself. That's her "waacking" at the head of the crew in the "Suns" video. (More on what "waacking" is in a bit.)

Reyes has trained in various styles of dance and started out doing hip-hop choreography and music videos, but her passion is house. In HATAW, she's had the opportunity to not just remix traditional Filipino dance, but also the house styles that she loves.

One of the hardest-working artists I've ever met (she's also a DJ, actor and visual artist) I was curious about her journey and what's brought her to this moment — reimagining the dance of two distinct cultures.

"I used to listen to house music when I was a kid," says Reyes, who grew up in the GTA, "but my best friend introduced me to the newer house music, like deep soulful house, back in 2003 and I became obsessed with it."

I love house and house culture because it's for all walks of life and it accepts everyone.- Diana Reyes, dancer

She also got into "waacking." The style's not technically part of house culture, Reyes notes, but it shares some ties to the LGBTQ community.

The movement looks like it sounds. (Imagine a dancer's arms moving, with a "whack!" to the beat.) And it came out of Los Angeles during the '70s. It was a time when homophobia was the norm, but the gay club scene offered a space for creative expression. Dancers in the clubs were inspired by the graceful steps of Fred Astaire, the heightened dramatics of Norma Desmond and even the agile physicality of Bruce Lee.

"House music is an arena for people to come and be themselves," she told me when we spoke on the phone earlier this week. "I love house and house culture because it's for all walks of life and it accepts everyone."

In the early 2000s, the same time Reyes was falling for house, the culture was making comeback. The AIDS epidemic of the '80s tragically took many of house dance's pioneers — but in the new millennium, dancer Brian Green was among those bringing it back, and Reyes was determined to study with him.

"In dance, I've had to prove myself so many times," says Diana Reyes a.k.a. Fly Lady Di. (Photo: Natalie Caine/Courtesy of Diana Reyes)

She moved to New York City, but Green's classes were a culture shock. Despite her experience dancing hip-hop, she was completely thrown off by the new technique.

"[I was] devastated," she says. "So I didn't go back to his class. I kind of gave up."

Reyes fought to become a dancer in the first place. When she was a little kid, dancing was her dream. "I got introduced to Janet Jackson's 'Rhythm Nation' and then I was like, 'That's it. This is it. This is what I want to do with my life.'"

Her family had other ideas. "I was chubby and they always made fun of me," she remembers. "They were like, 'You're too fat, you're gonna break the boards.' And that kind of shattered my dreams. But I was persistent."

She was persistent in New York, too. After leaving Green's class, Reyes wasn't down for long. She found a new mentor, Ejoe Wilson, a former principal dancer for Mariah Carey who's been dancing house for more than 30 years.

Following the 2008 market crash, Reyes returned to Canada and became one of the first people to teach house dance in Toronto. She now travels the world as an instructor, too.

Toronto has its own brand of house dancing, she says. "It's like a totally different language," says Reyes.

"An O.G. house dancer in Toronto and an O.G. house dancer in New York would dance in the same party but have a totally different groove, vibe. The Toronto style is more formalist, it's more free-flowing and linked to a style called Northern soul. It looks like tap, more like musical theatre."

We all do it for the love. A love of dance, a love of Filipino culture, our desire to present it to the world.- Diana Reyes, dancer

When Reyes was invited to join HATAW, her house dance background got remixed into something else entirely.

"I'm really new to Filipino folk dance, so I'm getting introduced to different things and they're getting introduced to waacking and house dance. It's a little bit of an exchange," she says.

Although her moves are always distinct, Reyes's strong and deliberate choreography is a sometimes surprising complement to the graceful moves of folk dance.

In just a couple of years, HATAW's work has been making waves not only in Canada but also internationally. The video for the song "World Gong Crazy" has been an online sensation, and earlier this week, it was announced that the piece was nominated for a Berlin Music Video Award.

"We all do it for the love," she says. "A love of dance, a love of Filipino culture, our desire to present it to the world.

"For all of us, it's been like a dream. Things have magically come together at the perfect time. Indigenous culture is causing a big wave around the world, you know, with the Dakota Pipeline and A Tribe Called Red — people are just paying more attention to Indigenous culture. I think that's a great thing for us."


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