Friday, February 1, 2013

"Artists at the Edge: Tonya Kay (part 1)

-- David "Skinny Devil" McLean
originally published at Tinfoil Music
Friday, 08 February 2008 06:47

It's probably fair to say that Tonya Kay is currently best known for her appearance as "Creature" on the TV show "Who Wants to be a Super Hero" (Sci-Fi Network) or NBC's "America's Got Talent". Or perhaps it's due to 3 years with STOMP or touring as a dancer with Panic at the Disco. Or maybe it's the recent appearance in the Trace Adkins music video for his song "I Got My Game On" or in the Progressive Auto Insurance TV commercials as a gremlin.

Or perhaps you've not heard of Tonya at all, but suddenly realize that you've seen her everywhere.

Tonya Kay is a fascinating woman. Dancer, musician, stunt-woman, actress, writer, director, producer, environmental activist...the list goes on. To sum it up, she is a one-woman cyclone of creativity, always at the brink and always in motion, boldly dancing at the chaotic but cutting edge of art.

It begins years ago when this 4 year old little girl from southern Michigan started taking tap dance. She spent a few years doing local musical theater and then, at the ripe old age of 15, snagged her first professional gig in Detroit, performing in "The Music Man" (and still managed to be valedictorian of her class). She hasn't stopped moving since. In addition to the above-listed credits, Tonya toured with country music legend Kenny Rogers, danced with the Broadway production of the Rugrats, wrote & directed Xtreme Rhythm Theatre to rave reviews, Mark Goodman's Tap Company (LA), played "NitroGrl" in the CBS show "NUMB3RS", a stint with Deca Dance Hip-Hop Theatre (NYC), the favorite "target" of knife-thrower Jack Dagger, internet-TV host, popped up in a Rob Zombie video, has been seen across the country cracking whips, flag dancing, & stilt-walking, produced an instructional video "How to Spin Poi with Tonya Kay", and much, much more.

A vegan since her teens and now well-known in raw foodist circles, Ms. Kay is a practicing pagan (& Chaote) and environmental activist who drives a modified car (2001 Jetta) that runs on waste vegetable oil. A prolific writer, Tonya has written almost as many articles/essays as she has been the subject of, on topics ranging from raw food to spirituality to environmental concerns to dance to health to teenage obesity to marketing.

She carved out a bit of time to chat. Below is part one of our 2-part interview. Afterwards, be sure to check out her official home on the web: www.TonyaKay.Com !


1) Hi, Tonya. Welcome to Tinfoil Music. How's the weather in LA today (or are you even in LA today)?

Tonya - Merry meet, David! I am indeed in Hollyweird this evening and it is chill, like the breath of moist midnite itself. The perfect time of year to rest and regenerate, as winter implores us so to do.

2) You spent most of your adult life living as a gypsy - I think at one point you mentioned that you hadn't paid rent anywhere in 5 years. Recently, however, you moved to LA and moved into an apartment. Now that you've been there for a few months, I guess it's fair to ask: Do you prefer your current "nomad from a home base" approach, or your former "gypsy" approach?

Tonya - Well aren't you delving deeply into my psyche right from the get-go, David.

Freedom is what I am after. The true test of a strong mind, or an adept Chaote, is the ability to adhere to a system fully without owing allegiance to it. The Buddhists call it non-attachment. Well, from the
outside, my gypsy personality appeared free to onlookers, and for the most part I was - I (still) haven't paid rent in 7 years, I own very few possessions, in fact, I don't really have a concept of ownership at all, I have successfully liberated my identity from finances and ... to a lot of people that is freedom. But at a certain point, when your body is dropping out from underneath you from years of living so without a plan, so trusting in the Universe, so in the flow that you literally call whatever friend in whatever city you are in only 4 hours before you hope they'll allow you to sleep on their couch that nite - at that point, I had to stop and ask myself if freedom wasn't my cage. There's a time when you are adventuring and really living life, and there's a time when you are just running. In my case, from commitment and intimacy. As soon as I saw that pattern might be manifesting, I decided that I was
"good" at carpet-bagging and didn't want to loose that prowess, but I also wanted to be "good" at committing and being available, as well.

And wow - watch how the career alters when you are perceived as available and committed - especially in LA film and television! It's an interesting way of doing business, this highly social talent search. People really do invest in someone they feel they feel will be there next week. It's been a spiritual journey for me, this forced exploration of loosing my elusiveness. It has been painful and an extreme burden at times, too. But one day last year, I broke through: I placed 5 books on a a shelf in my dining room and didn't feel like that meant anything. It didn't mean I had to stay where those books were. It didn't mean the books' contents represented something about my lifestyle. It didn't
mean that I had to work a job I didn't enjoy to make sure there was a shelf always there for holding books. It didn't mean anything at all. That is when I realized true freedom. That is when I successfully broke the location/dislocation cage. Now I can be somewhere or be anywhere and know that I am...neither of those two things. I am not a gypsy and neither am I stationary. But I am "good" at both, owing no allegiance to either, able to shift with ease between the two according to the situation that serves each identity best.

Get the freedom in this: in 2007 I was "committed and available" to Los Angeles and my career bloomed because of it, yet somehow I still explored Kauai twice, Japan once, and seven United States! Committed or elusive - or either at the exact right time?

Now that I've broken the location/dislocation cage, I am working on the space/time contingency. What freedom will be reached when I know, with physical authenticity, that I can choose to adhere to the alarm on my cell phone or completely disregard the aging process altogether? Freedom is what I am after.

3) You've done a lot of TV work lately: Progressive ads, Trace Adkins music video, Sci-Fi Channel's "Who Wants to be a Superhero?". This is in stark contrast to a career primarily based around live performance, from early local theater gigs to 3 years with Stomp to your recent tour with the band Panic! at the Disco. Are you consciously shifting your focus to studio projects, or is it just a bit of serendipity?

Tonya - I need to grow. Growth is motion and stagnancy is death. I'm not ready to die yet, so...I guess I'll grow.

I feel fortunate and fulfilled that not only have I been blessed to lead successful careers in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, but my venues have been as varied as my wanderings: from dinner theatre to rock and roll tours, from concert dance to performance art. Heck, I even got to work my "big dream" gig: STOMP. It was the "big dream" - you know the one that you always fantasized about in highschool? How many 25 year olds can actually say they've lived their "big dream"? And what does one do afterwards, where there is no "big dream" left to work towards?

You start doing whateveritisyoudo for the pure fun of it! I could have been ruined or spoiled, but instead I developed a performance mentality that accepts only people who intrigue me, situations that excite me, material that engages me, or some combination of adventure therein so I can elicit the most fun.

4) Let's go back in time for a moment. You started tap-dance lessons at age four, and had your first performance at age six in local musical theater at home in Michigan. Was tap-dancing your first study in dance, and do you remember what the production was?

Tonya - Tap dancing is the foundation of my performance journey. And today, it is my second language, next to English. I filmed a music video in Japan last year and on set, there was a definite communication barrier between the 5 Los Angeles dancers and the other 30 Japanese cast and crew. Then I arranged a gig teaching tap at a local Tokyo studio and...we all finally spoke the same language: rhythm. There was no communication barrier at all in my tap classes. We spoke, laughed,
understood, applied, and developed relationships through the music we made with our feet. Bless the universal language of tap dance. I am still a hoofer today.

The first production I did at age 6 in my local community theatre, was "Oliver!" and I remember it well. I joke that my family was into theatre and just didn't want to get a baby sitter while for the duration of the run. But really, I could have asked for nothing more growing up - imagine a family singing and dancing around the house to "practice" their roles, but really, just having a good time in the arts from the get go. My introduction to theatre established performing as a very family-oriented, expression-supporting, silliness. Let's face it - if you aren't having a good time doing something, why are doing it anyway?

5) After that, it was a series of gigs until, at age 15, you landed a job in "The Music Man" in Detroit - your first professional gig. How long after that until you went on the road, and what was your first touring project?

Tonya - Imagine a community theatre/dance studio raised farmtown girl getting an actual professional job at the Fischer Theatre, a major venue, in Detroit, MI. I had just seen "Cats" on that stage the year
prior and now, definitely no stranger to the stage, was getting to share my passion and talents to 2,500 audience members, rather than the 250 back home - what a rush! And what does a 15 year old farmtown girl do with a real paycheck every week? I honestly had no idea what to do with it so I bought myself a CD player (the first one in our home) for my birthday and an Alice In Chains CD.

After I graduated valedictorian of my high school class, I opted to not continue on with college or University. I ironically moved to a neighboring city and while teaching aerobics and working a slew of factory jobs I inevitably got fired from after only two weeks' employment, I made weekly roadtrips to the big city of Chicago. It took three hours for me to drive there and the auditions I would attend
usually lasted about an hour and a half. With the return trip, that's six hours of driving for one little audition and a whole lot of determination. Determination (or denial!) paid off quickly though, when
I booked my first touring production, "The Tap Dance Kid". I was 17 years old and out on the road with a professional musical theatre production having the time of my life. Discovering that this heart and soul is made for gypsy wanderings and getting to tap dance and be applauded for it.

On a side note, the costume designers of the "Tap Dance Kid" tour really wanted the entire cast in tap shoes all colors of the rainbow for one number. But no manufacturer makes such a thing. So the costume designers went through several mock ups before deciding on rainbow Converse sneakers. However, the rubber soles on the kicks disallowed any application of tap screws, so the designers hot-glued thin pieces of wood to the toes and heals and attached the taps to to those. Unfortunately, the hot glue tap shoe design held up for a week of rehearsals, but not a second more. On our opening nite during the big full-cast production number, those taps were shooting off our shoes like
silver bullets aimed at any high-price ticket holder in the first four rows! You can't write situational comedy like that!

6) One word: Stomp.

Tonya - STOMP for me, was that show that I always dreamed of doing when I was a teenager living in rural Michigan. Everyone has one: the big dream. And you use that big dream to fuel your path in life. When I was 18 and tap dancing in a Chicago musical theatre production of "Crazy For You", I was dreaming of making beats in Off-Broaway's STOMP. When I was 23 and performing in the New York City modern dance company, Axis Danz, I was still seeing myself someday in STOMP. STOMP was the big dream.

A tapper since age 4, I know I was good with rhythm and a professional dancer since age 15, I knew I could handle STOMP's choreography. Out of 1,000 people at the Manhattan open call, they hired 3 women - one was little old, farmtown me. The world's most proficient percussionists and dancers were there to snag a spot in STOMP and that day I learned tangibly that what gives one the right to make music is honing of a technical skill, but what gives one the right to stand on stage in front
of 3,000 people performing said skill, is the honing of the "spark".

There was not a day in my STOMP career, when the lights came up after the grand finale, the entire cast dramatically lying on the stage chests heaving from the finale's exertion, that I did not think to myself, "I'm in STOMP. I'm really in STOMP." Gratitude is an euphoric state.

7) In addition to working as a hired gun in various TV, video, film, & touring projects, you've tried your hand at producing & directing. Can you tell us a little about your project Xtreme Rhythm Theater, and will you be exploring more creation/production in the future?

Tonya - Xtreme Rhythm Theatre is a full-length all-rhythm production I wrote, choreographed and directed in 2001. I had just finished my training with the Off-Broadway aerial production, "De La Guarda", when the Theatre For Youth in southern Michigan contacted me for a creative residency from New York. Thanks to grants from the Theatre For Youth's local and state support of the arts, a three-week rehearsal/creation process and a two week performance process was funded.

There was a lot of multi-tasking going into bringing a part of my imagination to life on stage, from holding auditions to casting each and every of the 22 performers, ages 5 to 23. There was set design,
lighting design, and production advertising. There was scheduling, costuming and...oh, the whole making up a full-length all-rhythm theatrical script and then teaching it to these talented young
performers who were more skilled at traditional song and dance than say, expressing a story-line through beats on their bodies, like a human drum kit.

The story of Xtreme Rhythm Theatre is literally the story of my escolades living as a street dancer in New York City. Again, told without words entirely through rhythm. Xtreme Rhythm Theatre is an urban drum circle, a glo stick rave, a live rock concert and is available still for universities, fine art camps and semi-professional theaters for production even now. After seeing the way this material changed 22 young performer's lives through rhythm, I think it essential that every young performer truly experience that "they, too, are a star". Xtreme Rhythm Theatre is a challenging magickal experience that does just that.

I fully intend on exploring more creation/production in the future, as well as right now. I am always doing something creative and at this point in my life, I really enjoy collaborating with other artists. I
don't have to be the writer, choreography, director, designer and crew member, too. I would prefer to connect with others who are really good at something and allow them the freedom to do their role in our project far better than I could or would have time for.

I am really proud of a project I just released called the Raw Nutritional Analysis eBook ( As far as creative projects go, it is an inspiring example of three vastly diverse talents offering their expertise to one masterpiece. I focused on philosophical writing with a powerful emotional/intellectual appeal. I also added the image that would present this eBook as noteworthy to the media or press. Joanna Steven, co-author, added her nutritional science expertise with solid facts and research. The graphic designer, MC Miller, tied all the information together visually in a way that allow the reader to be affected most deeply. In that way, the Raw Nutritional Analysis eBook has been overwhelmingly successful for me as a project producer. Right now, I am working on a project far larger: comic book publication!

8) Despite the wide range of projects in which you've been involved - that includes many extremes like stilt-walking and bubble rolling and knife-throwing and whip-cracking and even flying (De La Guarda) in addition to the more traditional roles - all things seem to revolve around Tonya Kay, the Dancer. Deca Dance, XRT, Axis Danz, Peggy Spina Tap, and more. Is this an accurate notion, and can you talk a bit about how dance has prepared you for the other creative endeavors in which
you've been involved?

Tonya - When asked to identify my career, I choose the words "performing artist". It does not matter to me if I am singing, acting, dancing, reading poetry or playing leap frog, as long as I get to affect an
audience. To be a performing artist, it is not enough to have a talent. You must also have the impetuous need to powerfully communicate that talent with other people. You've seen famous musicians who won't even look up from their drum kit while on tour: talented musician, but not a
performing artist. You've seen dancers who can do 8 pirouettes en pointe center stage, but then an ensemble dancer will simply take a cross downstage and you can't take your eyes off her. Why? Because she has the spark of a true performing artist. I consider it my job to hone in on and nurture, explore, develop the spark. For true performing artists, every role revolves around their talent and then the unique something the personalize it with. When you say that my roles revolve around "Tonya Kay", I am flattered because to me, that means my spark is shining brightly as a recognizable and memorable aspect of my performance.

So what is dance for me? Dance is my passion. Dance is my self expression. Dance is my therapy. Dance is my exorcism. Dance is my mojo. Dance is my fitness. Dance is my language. Dance is my reason for living. When the whateveritis speaks through me, it is while I am dancing. It does not matter to me if I am getting paid to dance or not (though I have been extremely lucky that others enjoy watching me dance and therefore I do get paid). Even if I am making my money acting in a
feature film, or forsaking "work" altogether and taking holiday in the southern Caribbean, I will be groovin at the club, jammin in my hotel room, tap dancing on the escalator, or taking class at the studio. Dance has nothing to do with my career. And everything to do with it. Dance
is the reason I know I have a spark to share at all.

9) You also produced an instructional DVD, "How to Spin Poi with Tonya Kay". How did that come about?

Tonya - I personally became addicted to poi as a dance form at a pagan festival in Indiana, 2002. A group of grungy young witches pulled me into their private circle and left my jaw agape as I beheld the dangerous and sensual circles of fire they spun in intricate patterns around their muscular bodies. Immediately I began practicing the technique of spinning poi and as a professional dancer, noticed right away a new power in my body's core and a noteworthy definition of my deltoids and upper back. To my delight, the act of spinning weighted circles around oneself not only creates a space in which, while the body is fully engaged, the mind is lulled into meditative trans, but also is just so much genuine fun, I don't even realize I've "worked out".

Poi spinning originated in New Zealand where the Maori Tribe warriors spun rocks tied to rope for strength training before battle and the Maori Tribe women spun poi to increase dexterity and coordination in their fingers for weaving. Though poi's roots are certainly documented
in New Zealand, the Western amalgamation seen at beaches, bonfires, drum circles, warehouses and rooftops across the globe today, likely draws also from the Argentinian self-defense using bolederas as well as the Polynesian food preparation where the taro root is tied in leaves and dashed against rocks until it reaches the paste-like consistency of the finger food we know as "poi".

Ironically, a hobby/workout that I literally taught myself by spinning a consistent 15 minutes a day for several years, is now what friends make a big deal out of me doing at parties and what audiences pay me to do professionally. I've spun fire poi in Vancouver Canada, on the Turks and Caicos Islands, at Hollywood's Paramount Studios and on NBC's America's Got Talent. I felt so strongly as an artist and an athlete about this exercise, that I began teaching others how to spin in workshops across the country. Then, when a critical mass of students and fans had suggested, "you need an instructional dvd", I listened. The How To Spin Poi DVD ( has helped the people I can't reach in person, find the core strength, self-expression and the magick poi has offered me for themselves.

10) You're also known in raw food and environmental circles. Let's start with food: You were a vegetarian at age 8, a vegan by age 17, and then switched to raw vegan a few years ago. Why did you stop eating meat, then animal products (dairy, etc.), and why have you recently stopped cooking your food?

Tonya - I remember reaching into the cage and petting her. Her nose softer than kitten paws, her eyes magnificent brown without the ability to lie. Grandma then took my hand and led me back through the slaughterhouse where vividly I remember realizing, in an eight year old’s way, what went on between the holding cages and the freezer. I’m glad my grandparents, beautiful and loving people, owned a slaughterhouse in addition to farming their 130 acres. I wish everyone’s grandparents owned one.

So at eight years old I became vegetarian by default. I was not yet mature enough to have opinions on animal liberation or environmentalism. I was not old enough to comprehend mortality and therefore desire health. But I was emotionally developed enough, even at eight, to know that when I saw meat on my plate, I felt nauseous. I became vegetarian for emotional reasons, the great side effect being a feeling of freedom. Even an eight year old can digest spiritual lessons.

I dove into veganism in much the same unconscious way. This time as a test of late teen will power and desire for experimentation (experience being the only valid way I have found to gain wisdom). In the first month after cutting out dairy and eggs, I lost 10 pounds off my already thin, 19 year old dancer frame, experienced again the unexpected side effect of a new level of spiritual freedom, and for the next 2 years existed as what I call an “uneducated vegan”: completely unaware in the Midwest farmlands that substitutions such as rice milk, soy burgers or wheat gluten even existed, while the mainstay of their ingredients were being grown by the acre in my very back yard.

Hence began my true health quest marked by years of personal experimentation. Protein smoothies and apple cider vinegar fasts, homemade herbal tonics and in-depth aromatherapy, organic urban
gardening and daily ritual added to my wisdom. At 23 I had eliminated refined sugars and grains, and was consuming a 50% raw diet already, based on intuitive health practices.

Raw food as a lifestyle came again completely by accident when I was performing aerial stunt work in the Off-Broadway production, "De La Guarda" in Las Vegas. A dear friend took me to The Raw Truth CafĂ© and mentioned how the raw diet had cured her of a major health concern. I was challenged that a health seeker such as I, had never heard of this raw food movement, and I was inspired when I tasted The Raw Truth’s cuisine – how colorful, how flavorful, how nourished I felt right away. Determined to not become the “uneducated raw foodist”, I took the next year to read books on the subject and note in my daily life what would soon be changing. I started the raw food diet in August of 2001 as another personal health experiment. I thought I was healthy as a whole,
cooked vegan, but transition to raw foods has brought miracles to my life.

(Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Tonya Kay!)

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