|BARBARA You’ve had some obstacles to overcome in your life. What helped you through?
TRÉ Being physical. Like everyone, I’ve had adversities. My mom and I were physically abused by my father. And I’ve gone through a lot of turmoil and stress because of it. I call him the ‘triple A’ father: abuser, alcoholic and adulterer. Growing up in that can be hard. When I was 18, I took the last blow and said, “That’s enough!” Since that day he’s never hit anyone again. He changed his life for the better, hopefully. Apart from that, how I grew up was beautiful. My mother nourished my mind. I lived in Mississauga on a cul de sac two minutes from my high school. It wasn’t privileged, but I lived a very cool middle class life.
Now when I look back, I’m glad about my life. I wouldn’t have pursued dance, which I loved, four times a week to get out of my house. I wouldn’t have pursued basketball, volleyball or track and field to the point of being eligible to get NCAA scholarships. Sports was fun, fun, fun. Being physically fit was my enjoyment. It was my escape from the dark reality I was living.
B You headed off to New York at 21. That’s brave.
T Well, it was all about fun for me. “In New York, dreams come alive,” so I thought. But I was totally wrong. I didn’t get the job I auditioned for, stayed for a bit and came back home. When I got back to Toronto, I was cast in a lot of movies then all of a sudden, ‘slam dunk’ it died down. Basically homeless, I thought, “There’s got to be something better!” and an audition pops up in New York with a major hip hop artist. So off I go again. But this time a National Film Board of Canada documentary film crew followed me to film Breaking In: the Making of a Hip Hop Dancer. I was one of over 2,000 people who auditioned. Only six were chosen. And, I was one of the tenacious six who didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. This rocketed me onto a new platform of success.
When the documentary was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, it gave me more credibility and I ended up travelling with the great hip hop artist Missy Elliott as part of her crew. After I finished that gig, an LA producer called to see if I would choreograph a movie. I was living in the typical itsy-bitsy New York apartment with no windows. So off I go to LA, only to find out I didn’t get the job because I didn’t have enough work experience. But instead of being down, I was bold and asked if I could keep the script. I knew they were shooting the movie in Toronto and that they needed more actresses. I asked if I could be a dancer and they said ‘absolutely.’ Then when a major actress wasn’t available, I auditioned and got the part. It was a long road, but I could officially add ‘actress’ to my resumé.
B What would readers be surprised to learn about Tré?
T I’m a tomboy. Since I don’t dress like a tomboy, people don’t see it. But every Sunday, I sit down with the boys and watch football and basketball. I love it!
Also, when I was 11 years old, I wanted to be Canada’s first black ballerina, a ‘Black-erina.’ Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and the Asian ballets mesmerized me when they were on TV. Ballet was my ‘thing’ so I watched what was happening at The National Ballet.
I started to study for the ballet exams to get into The National Ballet School. When I told my ballet teacher I wanted to train there, she pointed to a picture on the wall, and asked what I noticed about the girls. “They look maybe 8 to 12 years old, but that’s okay. I’m 11 and pint size,” I responded. But that was not her point: it was that I was black. I said, “I can shove my Afro into a bun. I do it every day for dance class.” She was so adamant, and as a kid I figured she knew best: that if she’s telling me I can’t, then I can’t. But I am so thankful that, years later, even though I gave up my dream of being a ballerina, I never stopped dancing.
My common-law husband inspired me
with the greatest acronym for 'can't': 'certainly am not trying.' So whenever you say, “I can’t,” you’re telling yourself, “I ‘certainly am not trying.’” Not only did this ring true for me but it intrigued me and brought me to a place of what I call ‘I-powerment’ instead of ‘I can’t.’ Learning to empower oneself – I-am-power! A philosophy I’m presenting whenever, and wherever possible.
B How are you presenting this philosophy?
T I-powerment is for all ages: for youth to feel good + increase self-esteem. Then for women, we integrate physical fitness and nutrition along with mental positivity. When I’m teaching the ladies in my adult fitness classes, I’ll ask them to shout something that makes them feel really good. Even though they’re exhausted, this simple act of I-powerment energizes them.
B Your ballet teacher dissuaded you from being a ballerina. How did hip hop come into your life?
T Rap City, a Canadian TV program, played a half hour of hip hop every day. My brother and I loved the premier Canadian rapper Maestro Fresh Wes and we would dance to his songs. Maestro was big on the international scene, too, so it made us feel good as Canadians. Today, he’s become a good friend. We’d tape the songs from the radio, play them over to learn the words and watch Much Music videos to practise the dance moves. Hip hop wasn’t offered in dance studios so we’d get together at a friend’s house in the basement, the garage, or at the basketball court to practise these cool moves. That’s how we learned.
||B If you had a magic wand, is there something you’d want to change?
T Yes, racism. It sucks. Even though we don’t talk about it, it still exists in Canada. It’s a disgrace actually; we’re such a multicultural nation. As an actor, the parts are few and far between for women of colour. If you choose not to go on an audition because it portrays your race in a negative way, there’s a tone of, ‘oh, they don’t want to audition.’ It’s
a shame, because it’s really more about the freedom of choice and the portrayal of one’s character. You don’t want to get stereotyped either.
B Does your dance studio reflect Canada’s multiculturalism?
T It does. It’s a major reason for opening in Brampton. And our research showed that predominantly Afro- or Caribbean-Canadian and South Asian-Canadian kids were deprived of the evolution of dance in our world. And, these kids can’t spend $40 to get to downtown Toronto and back home and also pay $25 for a 90-minute master dance class. That’s excessive. So we brought the classes to them. It gives the kids the option of having the professional world of Hollywood / Bollywood and Toronto’s finest in their backyard. We keep it current and relevant for the kids. They love it and we love it.
B What motivated you to found The Tré Armstrong Give Back Foundation?T Because of what dance gave me in my life, I wanted to find a way to share the gift of dance with kids and youth across Canada who don’t have this opportunity. A few years ago, I created this not-for-profit organization, dedicated to educating through dance, health and vitality, as well as enrichment. The mission is to give marginalized and ‘at-risk’ youth the opportunity to learn and approach their life and dreams in a way that may be inaccessible to them, through dance. The Foundation is based on three pillars: education, health and vitality, + enrichment. The pillar of enrichment is a key component to model success. Success = failure + persistence + passion. Implementing this pillar in any area of your life will bring you success.
Once a year we have a ‘Give Back’ day – a free day of dance. Last year 500 kids danced their hearts out. On July 8 we will include a Dance-a-thon which will live-stream online so kids across Canada and the world can join in. It’s also a platform for aspiring young artists, along with master teachers, and dancers from SYTYCD. It will be so much fun! This is an opportunity for kids to fundraise and donate to The Foundation to assist kids to have performing arts programs in their community. A small donation of $1, $2, $10 or even $100 is appreciated and goes a long way.
A program we’d like to have annually,
D-Tour, was held in Parkdale last year – a beautiful little village in Toronto that could be so much more if the city invested in it. I used to live there, so I really wanted to bring something to the community. It took us three years to get funding for this unique program. The personal situations of the girls in the program didn’t give them access to any dance classes. In D-Tour, they created their own cartoon-like dance characters, choreographed, and directed the hair, makeup and wardrobe for their character. A testament of: “This is you girl, who you want to be. So, go ahead, live your dream!” The kids loved it. We then created dance cards called Davatars that are used to help non-dancers feel like dancers. Creating their characters gave them a sense of ownership in the program. We haven’t got funding for it this year, yet. We’re still searching, and we won’t give up.
B What a fabulous program, teaching kids to recognize their inner self and doing it through something they love. How do you do that for you every day?
T Number one: I wake up beside one of the greatest men alive. Number two: I have God on my side. I know it sounds cliché and kind of boring, but it really is true. I have a great family structure. I try my best in all that I do. But whenever it gets too serious, I laugh. I love to laugh and have fun.
Another way I keep my creativity flowing is by doing what I call ‘my creative walk.’ I’ll get an idea in my head that I have to get out, so I walk around reciting the thoughts out loud. This keeps my ‘actor-self’ engaged and inspired. Some people may call me crazy, but thankfully I live in an inspired home and environment.
B You’re being mindful and in the moment.
T Yes. For me, being in the moment comes from life conditioning. How you’ve been taught to think, act and carry yourself. Your mannerisms and where your thoughts go are all a part of mindfulness. Wise teachings from my Mom.
B What exercise do you believe can benefit everyone?
T My kids hate it, and I have a love/hate relationship with it: an all-body-conditioning, cardio, muscular strength, flexibility and endurance all-in-one exercise. It’s tough but good. Your readers get a taste in the fitness section (page 48). So everybody go do it! (A hearty laugh from Tré.) The body is a wondrous machine and we just need to learn how to care for it properly.
B How do you balance your life?
T I like to sleep. I’m a Leo. We lions go hard; we’re constantly on the move, darting everywhere. And when we go down, we honestly crash and burn. So my bed is my best friend. Outside of that, I golf. I didn’t have an interest in it, but I think being a dancer, it’s the rhythm of the swing I like. I’ve heard dancers pick up golf quickly because of the cadence. I like it and seem to do pretty well.
B So You Think You Can Dance Canada?
T It was a fun time! Sad that it’s over. It was a phenomenal show. The producer and the whole executive team were great. Even now when I re-watch our show compared to the other SYTYCD shows around the world, ours really ‘slashed’ the box. Canada has BIG talent.
We have awesome creative dancers and choreographers. Most are still going hard. I feel really bad for the kids. The show was gone as of last fall so a lot of these kids are now in the final stretches of their ‘I’ve been on the show’ talk. It’s sad because these dancers may be back in the position they were in before the show.
B In your opinion, how does dance translate throughout the world?
T Dance is a universal language in the world. When you’re able to tap into the heart of another person,
you may pull on a string that
creates an opening. A dance movement developed in Canada can touch the heart of someone in another country, and that may change the outlook of how they think about Canadians.
I went to Ecuador recently.
I couldn’t talk to the kids because of the language barrier. How was I going to teach these kids our dance? So I bring out the Davatar cards created from the
D-Tour program, and the girls start giggling. These shy little girls started chatting together and laughing. They loved the cards and copied all the pictures. When I returned the next day, they all sat around me, touching me, laughing and asking to see the cards. In this little, rural, indigenous community that didn’t have Internet, barely a school, these girls wanted to play, be kids and learn our dance, participate and laugh. That’s the power of dance, it really breaks barriers. Everyone can do it in some form or another.
B What final thoughts would you love to leave with readers?
T Don’t look for others to empower you. Empower yourself – I-power you. Keep telling yourself how beautiful you are until you believe it.
B Thank you Tré for all that you do! Please go to
participate and donate to
the Give Back Day.