Dance Community
12:01 am
Mon July 8, 2013

Seattle's Tonya Lockyer Creates Community Through Dance

If Seattle’s dance community had a mayor, it might be Tonya Lockyer. As executive artistic director of Velocity Dance Center, Lockyer oversees a busy hub of classes, performances, lectures, and even potluck dinners. Professional dancers mingle with aspiring amateurs and visiting artists check in at Velocity to learn more about the city’s dance scene. Velocity is busy seven days a week, and you’ll often find Lockyer at her desk, taking in the activity and plotting to create more.

Coming To The Northwest

Lockyer’s involvement with dance started early, when she was a girl in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  Traditional dance was a big part of impromptu parties and neighborhood celebrations. Lockyer says she made up dances for her friends and performed them for her father after dinner.

By the age of nine, Lockyer was tapped for a scholarship at a major Canadian dance school. She studied ballet through her high school years, but at the advice of her teachers moved to New York after graduation to focus on modern dance. Lockyer worked with Merce Cunningham and other well known contemporary choreographers on the East Coast. But something was missing.

“I wanted to be near the ocean,” Lockyer recalls. She wanted to live in a community where “contemporary art and progressive ideas about the environment and social justice were embraced.” Lockyer wanted to root herself in a community. In 1998 she moved west to Seattle.

I wanted to live in a community where contemporary art and progressive ideas about the environment and social justice were embraced.

Almost as soon as she arrived in the Pacific Northwest, Lockyer formed her own performance company, VIA. She blended movement with spoken word and original music in a type of dance theater that addressed social issues, political concerns and her own life. Lockyer also taught dance at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts.

She wasn’t working in a vacuum. Across town from Cornish, Velocity Dance Center was attracting contemporary dance makers with its series of professional classes and networking opportunities. Velocity offered Lockyer and other choreographers a place to present new work, to find new company members and to talk about their profession.

Recession Recovery

Like many small arts nonprofits in Seattle, Velocity stumbled along over the years with a patchwork quilt of funding. By 2010, though, the recession had hit hard. Velocity was forced out of its longtime home when the building changed owners.

The dance center moved, but the transition was long, costly and draining. Velocity had a new home but was left leaderless, with a substantial debt. That’s when Lockyer’s fellow dancers began to urge her to think about the job.

Tonya, you're the person to do this.

“I said Tonya, you’re the person to do this,” longtime Seattle dancer, teacher and choreographer Wade Madsen told her. Madsen worked with Lockyer at Cornish, and he thought she had the vision and energy to tackle what would be the monumental task of restoring Velocity’s financial stability. Fellow dancer and teacher Amy O’Neal agrees.

“She’s such a badass,” O’Neal laughs.

All kidding aside, O’Neal believes Tonya Lockyer has a passion for dance and the energy to expand Velocity into a hub for contemporary art and ideas. Lockyer’s already accomplished some of those goals.

Expansion And Revival

In the two years since she took over as Velocity’s executive artistic director, Lockyer has started an online journal about contemporary art, expanded the center’s program offerings to include lectures and public roundtables about the intersection of social issues and art, and organized a series of community suppers.

Lockyer’s most important contribution has been to spearhead a debt reduction campaign. She says she still worries about Velocity’s day-to-day finances, but the organization is up from under water for the moment. O’Neal says that’s done a lot to revive Velocity’s reputation with local dance students.

“There is a synergy and momentum for young dancers coming out of Cornish, out of the UW, to stay here,” O’Neal explains. “We had lost that.”

Velocity’s revival couldn’t come at a better time. The neighborhood around the dance center has developed into a nationally recognized arts destination. Richard Hugo House literary arts center is around the corner; Northwest Film Forum is two blocks south. Small galleries and music clubs abound.

I want to open as many doors and windows, create as many portals to participation as possible

Lockyer has dreams of expanding Velocity into a bigger building to offer an even wider array of programs. “I want to open as many doors and windows, create as many portals to participation as possible,” she enthuses.

Seattle is thousands of miles from Lockyer’s childhood home in Newfoundland. But at Velocity Dance Center, she’s reinvented a place where dance and conversation are the heart of a community.

This series, "13 for '13" is in partnership with the Seattle Times and profiles 13 members of the Seattle-area’s diverse cultural community; people who have had an impact and are poised to shape the cultural landscape in the decade to come.

Read a related story in the Seattle Times.