Filipino-American dancer Karla Garcia knows all about the hustle. As the first Filipina to get cast in the Broadway sensation Hamilton, Karla’s earned lots of praise and “how to be you po’s” from many aspiring theater performers and fans back here in the Philippines. To illustrate just how much of a big deal this was: Remember that 2016 #Ham4Ham Ten Commandments video with the lyrics in Taglish? Yup, that was her performing alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr.
Born and raised in Maryland to Filipino parents, Karla started tap dancing at three years old. As a tween, she decided that she wanted to make it on Broadway after seeing a close cousin of hers perform in The Lion King. She was the type of person who “didn’t have a big social life growing up because [she] really wanted to dance.” Karla lived and breathed her passion growing up, rehearsing after school and entering competitions for most of her elementary and high school life.
The hard work paid off, too. Before getting the Hamilton gig as a swing, Karla had already performed on stage in West Side Story, Gigi (alongside Vanessa Hudgens), and The Addams Family, plus the NBC television show Smash. Clearly, she’s living her childhood dream. We talk to Karla about growing up with supportive parents, getting disillusioned in college and following your passion.
I was wondering because you said that you’ve always wanted to do [dance]— how supportive was your family?
Yeah I don’t know what it’s like to not have a supportive family. I do know that my parents would get very strict about academics and it was basically, “You can’t dance if you don’t have good grades.” I really didn’t have a big social life growing up because I really wanted to dance. So I’d have practice after school all the time, and after that I’d have to do my homework and study to keep my grades up, because my dad was an attorney and my mom worked for the National Academy of Science and she was executive assistant, so they’re both very accomplished. And as immigrants, they came here and really made their way in their own line of work. So they just told me — well, college was the only option. There were no ifs or buts.
We’re always growing and changing and I think self-discovery is important. And again, it’s about being happy. Like if you thought this was gonna make you happy but something else happened and all of a sudden you’re into something else, then that’s okay.
Was there ever a point in your career where you felt disillusioned?
Yeah! For me it was college, for sure. Because I grew up dancing at a dance studio. It was after school, something extra on the side. With college, I majored in dance. So I was at a dance conservatory and I wasn’t used to dancing for a grade. I didn’t go to an arts school. Not like I felt forced to dance… a little bit because [of] structure. It was very different for me and I had a very hard time [in] my freshman year.
And then I actually found an outlet. I found a Filipino club at NYU. The International Filipino Association. It felt like home. I met people outside of the dance program, which is very important because you’re around them all the time. And I met other artists like me — they were into film, but they weren’t in my department specifically. I think doing something outside of my program also gave me more happiness and I was able to come back the next semester to my dance program with a different perspective and a renewed love for dance. Because I started to hate it after a while. I needed that time to get disciplined and sit down and be a student for a second. That was definitely the time when the passion was being tested.
Go see theater, go see movies, go see film, do research. Fan out on this passion you have because then you’ll be in the world.
Do you have advice for [young] people who already have a foot in the industry they want?
We’re always growing and changing and I think self-discovery is important. And again, it’s about being happy. Like if you thought this was gonna make you happy but something else happened and all of a sudden you’re into something else, then that’s okay. But I think if you have your eyes set on the prize and you definitely know you want a certain lifestyle or goal location-wise, you have to go all out. You have to commit the time and energy and expose yourself to everything that has to do with that. Like for instance, the arts. Go see theater, go see movies, go see film, do research. Fan out on this passion you have because then you’ll be in the world. And it’ll be so much easier to transition and fit yourself into that world if you’re around it.