The Nature of Things

Toronto dancer Julia Slater has 1.2 million fans on TikTok (but she dances even when no one is watching)

For Slater, who has Down Syndrome, dance is just as important as physical, behavioural and occupational therapy, says her mom

Toronto dancer Julia Slater has 1.2 million fans on TikTok | Why We Dance

10 months ago
Duration 2:39
For Slater, who has Down Syndrome, dance is just as important as physical, behavioural and occupational therapy, says her mom

When Julia Slater was four or five, her sister's dance teachers invited her to join classes. 

More than 20 years later, Julia teaches dance at the same studio — and she's a verified TikTok superstar with 1.2 million followers. Julia's dance videos and duets have been viewed millions of times by people around the world. 

Julia has Down Syndrome, and her mom, Ruth Zive, believes dance helped her development more than programs and interventions like speech, occupational and physical therapy.

In this Q&A with Why We Dance director Nathalie Bibeau, Julia and Ruth talk about Julia's dance journey, the ups and downs of social media, and life as a TikTok sensation. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Nathalie: First, I'd like you guys to introduce yourselves. So you can start, Julia.

Julia: My name is Julia Slater, and yes, I live in Canada. I used to live in America when I was a baby, in Pittsburgh, Penn. And yes, I'm a dancer.

Ruth: And I'm Ruth. I'm Julia's mom. That's generally how I'm known these days is the mom of Dancer Jules on TikTok.

Ruth, how would you describe your daughter?

Ruth: I would say that Julia is a very determined, enthusiastic, kind, loving and creative person. I think those are the adjectives that jumped to mind first and foremost.

And how about you, Julia? If you were to describe your mom, how would you do it?

Julia: She's always caring with me and my other siblings and my dogs. And she's creative. She's a social butterfly as well. So, like that.

Julia with her mom, Ruth Zive. Dance has helped Julia with social skills, behavioural skills, physical skills and speech, says Ruth. (CBC / Why We Dance)

Take me back to the early years of Julia's life and when dance came into the picture. How did that happen?

Ruth: When Julia's sister, Audrey, was about two, I needed to find an activity for [her] while Julia was in a program. And there was a dance studio nearby that was offering baby [and] toddler classes. So I enrolled Audrey. And then I would come back to pick her up with Julia. 

Towards the end of the year, the teachers [and] owners of the studio, Marnie and Rena [Schwartz at Vibe Dance Studio], said, "Why don't you enroll Julia? She would like it as well."

I was a little bit taken aback because Julia obviously has Down Syndrome and special needs. And you know, this is going back 20 plus years, and there weren't a lot of opportunities for Julia to integrate into typical programming. But Marnie and Rena didn't even hesitate. It wasn't even a consideration that she had special needs.

They just said, "Enroll her." So I did. 

She loved it. And she's been dancing there ever since. It's evolved into — you know, what started as an extracurricular activity once or twice a week just turned into a true passion for Julia in every sense. It touches all parts of her life. 

Ruth, did you ever imagine in those early months and years that Julia would have this kind of trajectory?

Ruth: When Julia was diagnosed [with Down Syndrome], I was told by the doctors that she would struggle to walk, that she would be delayed in everything that she did, that she might not talk. [They said] she wouldn't express herself, you know, normally. It was very overwhelming. And this was before the time of social media, so there were no places for me to go to see what the future might look like. 

I mean, adults with special needs and Down Syndrome had been institutionalized up until a few years before Julia was born.

Julia just proved the doctors wrong at every turn. And I think particularly when it comes to dance, it just so flies in the face of everything that I was told.

How did dance play a part in Julia's growth and development? 

Ruth: Before Julia started dancing, we were receiving lots of intervention and therapy to help her with her development. She had speech therapy and physiotherapy, occupational therapy. Even, I think, there was a behavioural therapist that came. And all that was great, but what was so interesting to me is that when she started dancing, the impacts of dance were even more meaningful than what she was receiving from all of these therapies.

Dance seemed to help her with social skills, behavioural skills, physical skills, with speech. She [even] learned the songs and she would sing along and she would communicate with her friends in the class. And she learned sequencing and math and spatial awareness. 

There was just so much that came from dance. That outlet, I think, from a developmental perspective, really helped Julia in her life.

What's your theory on why that is?

Ruth: Oh, that's a good question. I think that she didn't see it as therapy. Like, it was so natural for her that it didn't feel like work. 

The expectations were different, maybe. Often in therapy, she would be stressed out. She was never ever stressed at dance. She was always excited to push herself or take on a challenge or do something that she hadn't tried before.

Maybe it felt safer to her or less intimidating, I don't know. 

Often in therapy, she would be stressed out. She was never ever stressed at dance.- Ruth Zive

Julia, how would you describe the feeling when you are dancing? 

Julia: Keep going, and always go with the flow. I always try new things — try to encourage myself. 

Ruth: So, she's saying it's challenging, but she feels she wants to take on the challenge. 

When she's challenged with something in dance, Julia is so much more motivated to try it. While not all of [the dances are] easy for her, I think that there's an ease in trying new things. It's less daunting to her. She always believes that.

Julia: Yeah, I always believe [in] myself.

Ruth: Dance definitely makes you feel confident. 

Julia: Yes — and powerful!

How did you start on social media?

Julia: Actually, I tried TikTok a long time ago. It used to be named before [it changed to] TikTok. I had an account. I was in Grade 10.

Ruth: I wasn't aware at all of I knew she used to go on and I knew it had something to do with dancing. But there wasn't a lot of hype about, at least not from my generation, but then it became TikTok. And I think early in the pandemic was when I became aware that she had traction in the account. 

I was quite surprised. I would be out with her and people would recognize her — might have been right before the pandemic. And then because of the pandemic, she was posting so much more because this was an outlet for her and something to do. 

Julia: Didn't get bored.

Ruth: Yeah, to keep you from getting bored. And then there was one post that she had, and it went very viral and had over 10 million views. And that was what got my attention.

Julia: And that's why she [Ruth] joined TikTok.

Ruth: Yeah, I joined so that I could then watch her posts. And yeah, it was exciting to watch. 

So this is fairly recent, this TikTok phenomenon, in terms of the level of Julia's popularity?

Ruth: I think that in the last year and a half, her following has more than doubled. I think when the pandemic started, she probably had a couple hundred thousand followers. Now it's over a million. So in a short period of time, it's grown quite a bit.

Julia: Yeah, a lot, like crazy!

What do you love about it so much?

Julia: It's my favourite hobby, and I like to make videos.

Ruth, how do you feel having your daughter so popular, and exposed in some ways, on social media?

Ruth: I think especially through the pandemic, TikTok in particular has been a really great outlet for Julia to express herself, to meet people, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Her following and her fans are overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic about her posts. 

But you know, I worry as a mom. I want to make sure that nobody's taking advantage of her — and that can happen on social media, so it's definitely a concern of mine.

For the most part, she conducts herself in a really responsible way. And she's learned how to sort of monitor and she blocks people that aren't nice to her. But mostly people are quite nice and supportive.

I think especially through the pandemic, TikTok in particular has been a really great outlet for Julia to express herself, to meet people, to feel a sense of accomplishment.- Ruth Zive

On TikTok, we see dances evolve. A creative pattern of movement gets repeated and morphs as it travels from person to person. People imitate a dance, maybe slightly modify it, and then it turns into something else and keeps on going. What does that look like for Julia?

Ruth: There are all of these trends on TikTok and these dances that go viral, and Julia does a lot of them. It's incredible to me how quickly she learns these routines and these trends. 

But what's also been amazing is that Julia takes a lot of these movements that have become popular on TikTok and she'll create her own choreography. She'll post on her account, "new dance alert," and she'll choreograph her own TikTok dance.

And other people will then duet her doing the dance that she created. And it's just exciting to watch how that gets perpetuated across the platform.

Julia has her own style.

Julia: Unique way. 

Ruth: Yes, she has her own unique way. That's definitely true. And every TikToker sort of takes on the trend and makes it their own, which is nice.

Julia: I love that very much.

Julia, if TikTok didn't exist or if it all of a sudden went away, would you still dance?

Julia: Yes! It doesn't matter if TikTok goes away. [I'm] still going to dance no matter what. I guess I love dancing so much. My body [is] like, "Let's do dance! Let's go have fun!"

It may surprise you to learn that you are a dancer. In fact, we are all dancers. Why We Dance from The Nature of Things takes us into the beating heart of why humans simply must dance.

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