Brown Excellence: Our #PinayCrush Fly Lady Di Pushes the Boundaries of Pilipinx Folk Dance

 Photo by  Natalie Caine

Photo by Natalie Caine

Ok for real, LEGIT Renaissance Woman alert: Our first #PinayCrush of the year, Fly Lady Di, is not only an incredibly accomplished dancer and choreographer, but is also a DJ, actor and visual artist (and is hella killing it in all areas, btw). Born Diana C. Reyes in North York, Ontario, this Toronto-based trailblazer creates positive representation of Pinxys in the media through her own work and also by shining a spotlight on the Pilipinx-Canadian community through her show SoulJeepney on Filipino TV. As a member and contributing choreographer of young but already legendary HATAW, a multi-disciplinary performance collective, Diana helps create gorgeous contemporary Pilipinx cultural works that seamlessly blend traditional and futuristic elements of dance, music, and costume and push them into completely new territory. She was the very first Pilipina-Canadian to be featured as "Ms. Chatelaine" in iconic women's lifestyle magazine Chatelaine, the #1 magazine in Canada, and she's graced the pages of tons of publications over the years such as Complex, Audrey, Toronto Life, The Dance Current, and The Village Voice. 

Diana's dance resume is insane so we'll just go into a teeny bit of it here, but for example: she's worked with some of the world's most renowned choreographers for appearances in films like 2003's Honey with Jessica Alba; directors like Director X, who's made music videos for extremely high-profile artists like Drake and Kendrick Lamar (and who directed RiRi's "Work" video ayyyyee); and appeared in videos for artists such as MC Lyte, Fabolous, The Clipse, and Fall Out Boy, for whose "Dance Dance" video she won a 2006 MTV Viewer's Choice VMA. She's also been involved in judging several international street dance competitions such as Hip Hop International India, World of Dance Toronto, and Battle of Warriors in the PH, and was the first All-Styles Dance Director for Manifesto Festival, one of the biggest and longest-running Hip Hop festivals in North America. She's been a finalist in major dance battle competitions around the world and has taught House and Hip Hop workshops from across Canada to South Korea, Cebu, Manila, and India. 

An award-winning choreographer, Diana won a Best Canadian Feature award at Reel Asian Film Festival for her choreography for Prison Dancer, an original interactive musical web series starring incredible Pinxy talent and inspired by the viral Youtube phenomenon, the “Dancing Inmates of Cebu.” In addition to her work with HATAW, Diana also currently choreographs for fellow Pilipinx-Canadians recording artist Maylee Todd, tribal electro-fusion band DATU, and HAN HAN, a super sick rapper who spits in Tagalog, Cebuano, and English. The visually striking video for HATAW x DATU x HAN HAN's recent collab "World Gong Crazy" has gotten massive international accolades, and which we previously posted here (b/c megafans). At the end of October, Diana wrapped up a 3-month performance contract with the Art Gallery Ontario for Chicago-based artist Theatre Gates’ ‘How to Build a House Museum’ where she gave 2-hour long solo performances as part of the exhibition.

Unapologetically confident and super down-to-earth, we were stoked to speak with Diana on repping our culture through dance, her contributions to Toronto's dope Pinxy creative scene, and why "Filipino Time" is never a valid excuse when it comes to your career.

Hella Pinay: Reading your bio was overwhelming - you’ve won SO many awards and worked with so many incredible artists. Besides being a dancer, you’re also an actor, visual artist, and DJ! What is the most satisfying part of what you do, what brings you the most joy?

Fly Lady Di: Thank you! Dance is definitely my greatest passion. I feel like I am having a bit of a renaissance in that department. I’ve started to choreograph more and created my own business teaching classes in Toronto, but what brings me the greatest joy is training from others, taking dance classes and always being a student and always challenging myself to find new ways of thinking and moving. I want to keep opening my mind to new possibilities and concepts of how to be effective with my body.

Anyone you have particularly loved working with in your career or any favorite projects?

When it comes to dance, I always think about my first music video, working with Director X (known back then as Little X), I think it was my first time meeting a lot of dancers in Toronto that I still work with and consider friends. I remember eating lunch that day with everyone and joking with everyone super hard and cyphering to Noreaga and The Clipse lol. When it comes to art and painting, working [with] one of my best friends Ibrahim Baaith (who’s also a popular model) was always not only a good time, but a time for learning for me as he’s a master painter, someone I look up to a lot.

What’s your family’s migration story from the Philippines to Canada? Where in the Philippines does your heritage draw from?

I think my Mom was originally from the province in Manool and my Dad’s side was from Tarlac - which I visited on the way to Batangas. But they both grew up in Cubao, which is where my ancestral house still stands and my father still co-owns with his three siblings. It’s a cool house which I hope they never sell - I hope to inherit it and start a business and live there one day. My Mom moved to Los Angeles in the early '70s and then toured all over Europe, then back to Cali. She didn’t like Cali [so she] followed her brother and moved to Toronto. She set up shop there and went back to visit the Phils. When she did, she saw my Dad again and upon moving back to Canada she decided to sponsor him. They got married in 1977 and had me in 1982.

 Photo courtesy of  HATAW

Photo courtesy of HATAW

Is your family supportive/encouraging of your work and of your expression of our precolonial heritage and practices through dance? How does your Pilipina heritage inform your work and identity as an artist?

It’s funny, they are learning some things through me. I couldn’t believe my mother didn’t even know what a malong was! Yes of course they support it, they’re huge fans of Hataw and Datu. Since joining Hataw and Datu, I’ve increased my knowledge of our precolonial culture in a huge way and have only been wanting to dig deeper. It greatly informs my work. After digging into our culture, I’ve known myself a lot more and have become increasingly grounded in what I do. It has also greatened my confidence in a big way. Confidence comes from knowing yourself. From these practices, I can know myself. It’s also made me so happy to rep our culture and incorporate other (dance) cultures that look similar in vibe and character like Waacking and Voguing.

You’ve been a professional dancer for over a decade now! Can you give me a quick history of how you got into dance and your journey in terms of your career and dance styles?

I have always been the dancer everyone knew at parties, when a cool song came on, everyone would look at me to start the party and I would in a big way! I was shy but never shy when it came to busting a move. Long story short, took 1 year of commercial jazz at age 13 for only a year, started choreographing my own routines in high school, started taking class and doing work study for free classes downtown (I grew up in the Toronto suburb of Markham), people noticed me and told me about an audition for a group called Blaze that did a lot of work in the city, I auditioned and passed. The choreographer was Jae Blaze who now lives and works in LA, and Fatima Wilson, my manager at the time [who] is now an agent at bloc agency New York (the most respected dance and choreography agency in the world where I also signed in 2004 after moving there), they had me audition for Director X (who’s done all the pop stars' videos - Drake, Bieber, etc). He liked me and booked me for everything he directed in the summer of 2002. My career started from there. A year later, I broke up with the group, and a year after that I decided to move to New York which is where I trained with the founders of Hip Hop and House Dance (MOP TOPS / Elite Force / Dance Fusion). Associating with them is how I built my name in the underground dance scene, but aside from that, I also booked professional work (recruited from dance class) with Ciara, and Fall Out Boy (Dance Dance video - one of my biggest and most known works). I was also recognized all over the city for dancing in Central Park and Fort Greene Park whenever there would be a house music party.

Tell me more about HATAW - how you got involved, and your role there. I love seeing this combination of indigenous dance and Waacking and I feel like that has to be some of your doing…

The group started in 2014 by Jodinand Villaflores Aguillon, a mastermind of creativity and who I consider ‘the glue’ of the Filipino-Canadian scene here in Toronto. He knows everyone who is everyone. A true artist and leader of our community. I knew him since 2006 when he hired me at American Apparel (at the time, he managed all the stores in Toronto) and then he led me to Kapisanan [Philippine Center for Arts & Culture] which was our hub. He had always talked about a Folk Fusion type of performance where I’d incorporate Waacking and whatever I do with Filipino Folk. He put a bunch of us together in a rehearsal and we made our first piece ‘Kalipay’ which we still perform. My cousin shot amazing footage of us at our first performance at Kultura Filipino Festival and it got a lot of buzz on Facebook and we’ve not looked back ever since. I’d like to say I am a contributing choreographer for Hataw, though I’ve been choreographing a lot of pieces lately and it’s been an exciting, challenging and fun process. Yes, the Waacking and ‘contemporary’ movements would be my contributions as I am also influenced by my Waacking mentor Jonathan 'Jojo Dancer' Zolina who is also in Hataw (as seen with me in the latest HanHan video).

Did you have experience with Pilipinx folk and indigenous dance in the past? What are your source materials and inspirations?

I started learning about folk and indigenous dances and practices as of 2012 when I was asked to perform with DATU for our first performance (also at Kultura). Since then it’s been a slow but steady learning process and one that has fulfilled me greatly as an artist as mentioned above. A lot of my inspiration comes from the indigenous practices in Mindanao - particularly at SLT (School of Living Traditions). Thanks to JR (of DATU)’s wife, Jen, who introduced me to that world and taught me the first dances we performed that day.

 Fly Lady Di performing with HATAW at Kultura Filipino Arts Festival, August 2016 / Photo courtesy of Fly Lady Di

Fly Lady Di performing with HATAW at Kultura Filipino Arts Festival, August 2016 / Photo courtesy of Fly Lady Di

What is this SoulJeepney project you’re working on for Filipino TV?

SoulJeepney is a show that I created out of thin air. My friend (also in Hataw), Kaye Penaflor, has her own show on FTV called Live Breathe Yoga and she inspired me a lot to put together my own show, as the Programming Director, Filbert Wong, was looking for content. I produced and hosted it, a first time endeavor. It’s gotten a lot of buzz and is well liked and my parents always tell me their friends watch the show. I even got recognized for it while in Vancouver, on a completely random occurrence. I thought to myself if I was to ever put a show together, it would be a variety show, showcasing all the cool Filipinos in our scene. And the rest was magic! There are so many cool Filipinos in Toronto, so my job was super easy. I want to go out of town and travel the show eventually but, it’s a lot of work and brain power. I just want to focus on dancing right now (lol).

What is the Pilipinx community like in Toronto? From what I see via social media I have so much FOMO, the scene seems so creative and progressive and I actually really wanna move there and join Hataw hahaha.

You should! Hataw is a true family. We’ve grown and experienced a lot together in the past 2 years. I can’t even believe it’s only been two years. It feels like we’ve been together forever. Some of us have known each other for a lot longer than that but are only really bonding and working together more now. It really is magical. We all get along so well and respect each other a lot. No drama. I think we are all just down for the cause. But that’s just Hataw! The extended scene is no joke. Toronto is literally busting at the seams with cool Filipinos doing big things, so it’s easy to make a show like SoulJeepney (haha) because there are countless entrepreneurs, artists, musicians in Toronto that are killing it.

What have been your biggest challenges as an artist and particularly as a woman of color from a community that is hugely underrepresented in mainstream media?

 Photo by  Natalie Caine

Photo by Natalie Caine

It used to be that if I was amongst a lot of white people in various situations, I would feel odd or uncomfortable. Now I don’t even see the colour. I mean I do feel that way sometimes, there is a lot of racism here in Toronto still, it’s bad. It’s not in-your-face, but it’s definitely there. I feel it. But I’ve become a lot more comfortable with myself and so maybe I don't consider myself a ‘victim’ as much as I used to. They say if you think you’re a victim, you’ll act like a victim, and I believe that to be true. Now, I can say that I’m proud of who I am, not only because I stand out as a WOC, but because I am an exceptional artist who cares deeply about her professionalism and the quality of her work. At the end of the day, when you have a good product and you’re professional, people are going to want you around, they’ll give you lots of money for it too (lol), because you’re helping them in ways you aren’t even aware. I am so proud when I open a magazine that I’m in, that I can point at my picture and say, that there is a FILIPINO CANADIAN WOMAN. And that’s ME! Something I’ve always dreamed I’d do. I rarely ever saw Filipinos in the media. To be one, and one that’s known for her dancing, that’s a rare accomplishment.

Any advice to aspiring young dancers and artists who want to turn their passion into a career?

JUST DO IT WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT AND NEVER GIVE UP. PRACTICE, WORK HARD, SMILE, BE PROFESSIONAL AND ALWAYS BE THE FUCK EARLY FOR WORK, GIGS, REHEARSALS, ETC. NEVER EVER EVER BE LATE. Filipino time does not exist. I am Filipino, I am always early.

What makes you Hella Pinay or what does that mean to you?

Being Hella Pinay means I eat whatever tha fuck I want! Haha. Nah, but it means I always save food, and eat leftovers. That is the most Filipino thing I do. As my Mom would say, ‘Put it in a plastic!’ 


Check out Fly Lady Di's artist page to find out when she'll be performing, teaching a workshop, or DJ-ing near you + follow her adventures on Instagram @flyladydi and Twitter @flyladydi