Balancing multiple steps and roles

Keila Pérez-Vega and dancing with many hats

6 minute read
Pérez-Vega portrait shot, she’s mid-air mid-step, looking towards low-angle cam, a rainbow painted wall with neon behind her
Keila Pérez-Vega uses many skills and has served a diverse set of rules to become the dancer she is today. (Photo by Dew Rattanas.)

As Philadelphia’s 2022-2023 performing arts season draws to a close, dance enthusiasts reflect on memorable experiences, favorite events, and standout performances. Writers like me also consider how the people behind the scenes made our work easier (or harder) through their handling of requests for information, photos, interviews, and more. One person, Keila Pérez-Vega, stands out as this year’s MVP of Philly dance both onstage and off.

Dancing with many hats

Pérez-Vega’s solo KyLin’s Garden—part of the 25th anniversary season of Kun-Yang Lin Dancers (KYL/D) in March 2023—was one of my favorite performances of the year. This ambitious work aimed to depict the balance between masculinity and femininity, and Pérez-Vega embodied these qualities with strength, grace, precision, and ease. In addition to dancing professionally, Pérez-Vega works on the administrative side of dance, with roles as marketing and events director at Koresh Dance Company and marketing associate at KYL/D. On top of all this, Pérez-Vega is a competitive salsa dancer and a founder of Artsi, the nonprofit she runs with her husband, Pradhan Sharma. I sat down with her to learn more about this shining star of the Philly dance scene.

Pérez-Vega’s journey to the stage began in North Jersey. She identifies as Puerto Rican and grew up attending church with her family. At church, she participated in liturgical dance, sometimes called praise dance, which uses movement and the body to worship. Pérez-Vega’s parents identified and nourished her talent, first enrolling her in dance classes and later recognizing her need for more rigorous training. “My mom is very passionate about using your gifts,” Pérez-Vega said. Later, she studied performing arts in high school at Morris County School of Technology in Denville, New Jersey. Even then, Pérez-Vega knew she wanted a dance career. In 2011, she came to Philadelphia to study dance at the University of the Arts, graduating in 2015 with a BFA in dance.

The first year after her graduation, Pérez-Vega danced with several companies while completing an internship at Koresh Dance Company, developing skills in arts management and cultivating a love for organizing events. Currently, she handles Koresh Dance’s marketing, website, and design, as well as its festival and artist showcase. She also plans the company’s tours, including everything from flights and lodging to immigration paperwork and tech schedule for a trip to Italy in February 2023. Like many jobs, the position at Koresh has evolved over the years, and Pérez-Vega “learn[s] the true ins and outs of the organization” as she continues building her skills. Meanwhile, Pérez-Vega is also a dance artist at KYL/D. She supports marketing by contributing to KYL/D’s press releases and social media, giving Pérez-Vega the unique experience of promoting performances in which she dances.

The center stage

When I brought up her performance of KyLin’s Garden, she noted that it was her first solo at KYL/D, and Kun-Yang Lin previously performed it himself. The title references a creature in Chinese mythology that embodies the integration and balance of seemingly opposing traits, such as light and darkness, fierceness and gentleness, and yin and yang. The work also explores seeming binaries like masculine and feminine, and human and animal. “That felt like a very magical dance,” Pérez-Vega observed. She added that “the costuming helped, and I did my hair and makeup a certain way to reflect this creature,” which symbolizes unity, by combining parts of different animals into one being. Lin “hasn’t done the piece in 25 years, and this was the first time he gave it” to another dancer. “I truly, truly enjoy working with Kun-Yang,” said Pérez-Vega. He “trusts the talents and the uniqueness of each dancer” and coaches them by helping artists develop and grow through his dances.

She describes being on stage as a kind of all-consuming break from the everyday. “My favorite thing about performing is the act of totally being present,” she explained. “I’m making decisions, looking around at the people in the space that I’m sharing, being very honest and present.” She added, “I wear a lot of hats in my day-to-day life, and performance allows me just to be there.” Toggling between those hats involves switching between dance companies. Pérez-Vega noted that “the companies have a really good relationship,” which prevents conflicts between her roles at Koresh and KYL/D.

As a competitive salsa dancer, Pérez-Vega and her dance partner Darlin Garcia, director of Art In Motion in Turnersville, New Jersey, have won two world titles. Initially, Pérez-Vega’s salsa partner was her coach. She was surprised and flattered when Garcia, who has 20 years of experience, asked her to be his dance partner. The duo performs in multiple world dance competitions, including Salsa Summit in Miami.

Latin dance is “very much a part of my life,” Pérez-Vega said, although “people don’t realize that I do both” contemporary dance and competitive salsa. Competitive salsa and contemporary dance like KYL/D and Koresh are “very different” on a fundamental level, she noted. The source of a dancer’s power is distinct in each style. In Latin dance, power comes from the hips and feet. “Not to mention that I’m dancing with three-and-a-half-inch heels,” Pérez-Vega added. And Latin dancing with a partner, where one dancer leads the other through movement, is different from partnering in ballet. In her dancing with KYL/D, power comes from the core instead of the hips or feet. “The core is very important,” as is “how you cultivate from within,” Pérez-Vega explained.

She has feathers in her many caps, but founding Artsi is one of her proudest achievements. Pérez-Vega and Sharma imagined a nonprofit that would expose local artists to diverse local audiences and create unique and affordable ways to experience art. “It’s hard to get someone who’s never seen contemporary dance before to the theater,” Pérez-Vega remarked. The obstacle isn’t always money: people often spend on dinner and drinks, yet they may not feel comfortable going to a theater. Artsi removes this barrier by “curating events that transform spaces and … [try] to meet people halfway” through events like pastel drawing in the park, poetry and music at a warehouse, or dance at a brewery. Performances are short, typically around 20 minutes, and events function like a mixer where people can talk and mingle. One Artsi event featured a dancer, a cellist, and a painter—and audience surveys showed that attendees loved the classical music. This surprised everyone, from Artsi’s founders to the survey-takers. “When I hear that, I’m like, ‘Wow, I hit my mission,’” Pérez-Vega stated.

Nearly everyone in Philly knows the names of our city’s athletes, from Julius Erving to Jason Kelce. How many Philadelphia dancers can you name? Dancers are elite athletes who combine strength, fitness, conditioning, and technique with acting, elegance, and illusion. Their touchdowns are jumps, turns, and lifts, all performed with a smile and apparent ease. Meanwhile, legions of marketing and public relations professionals support and promote dancers’ work. A Swiss Army knife of an arts professional, Pérez-Vega is among Philly’s best in both categories.

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