Exit Interview: Velocity Dance’s Tonya Lockyer on 16 years in the arts on Capitol Hill

Tonya Lockyer (Image: Bettina Hansen with permission to CHS)

Tonya Lockyer began as a touring artist and educator, eventually finding her roots in Seattle after joining Velocity Dance Center as an artist and completing graduate school at the University of Washington. She went on to be Velocity’s programs and communications manager, and eventually its executive director.

In June, Lockyer announced she will be stepping down from her post this fall after 16 years with the organization.

Entering Velocity in a time of instability, debt, and amid an emergency capital campaign, Lockyer implemented operational and artistic direction and, in just two years, had Velocity operating in the black.

With accolades like the Mayor’s Artz Award, Tonya’s tenure has brought national visibility to the dance center and its residents, acting as the “portal to Seattle dance,” and a destination for touring choreographers. Her leadership influenced exceptional growth in audiences and artist residencies, with consistently sold-out community events and classes.

CHS spoke with Lockyer about how she got involved with Velocity and Seattle’s dance scene, her proudest moments as Artistic Executive Director, the importance of dance for our community, and what’s next for her.

How did you get involved with Velocity?: When I first moved to Seattle, I was teaching and I ran into a Seattle choreographer and said that I was moving to Seattle. She said, “Seattle is great, and my friend KT Niehoff needs someone to stay in her house!” So the very first place I ever lived was in the home of the co-founder of Velocity, KT Niehoff.

I lived in the home of the cofounder of Velocity, so I was in her home and discovering through photographs and letters and things, this amazing community of Seattle Dancers they had created. I hadn’t seen anything like that on the East Coast, I thought, wow, they’re creating together this amazing studio.

There’s something called D9 Dance Collective, a group of nine women who got together administer the company so that, instead of waiting for choreographers to ask them to perform, they commissioned and hired the choreographers to make work for them. I was exposed immediately to this really extraordinary community of incredibly strong women who got together to create their own success.

What does Seattle mean for dance; for you?: My first performances in Seattle were at Velocity, I began teaching and took classes there. It was and it remains that portal into the Seattle dance scene when you move here. It was for me, and it continues to be that way to this day.

We don’t know how lucky we are in Seattle, it’s not until you move here or you’ve been somewhere else that you realize that’s really rare. New York has that, but other cities don’t have that.

What are your proudest moments for Velocity over the years?: I’d have to think about that. I’m very much a yes, and kind of person. Picking your greatest moment or favorite color has always been hard for me, honestly. Obviously I feel really proud of what we have been able to achieve in sustaining Velocity. There were a lot of times where it really looked like it could close. I feel very good about how we have expanded audiences and made dance more relevant in Seattle. When I first started, dance was rarely written about, it was often the butt of jokes in the press. You know, our Intro to Dance classes are always sold out, every year our ticket sales have grown – seven years in a row. We’ve brought dance to all parts of the city.

Creating these conversations at Velocity that bring people together that aren’t necessarily dance artists, to show that dance really is relevant to the cultural life of the city. I think that’s what I am most proud of. Also, that we have been able to raise the profile of Seattle dance nationally, having one-on-one relationships with artists in Seattle helping them to increase their local and national visibility and viability. Artists like Kate Wallich, Cherdonna, Alice Gosti and Danielle Agami.

What is the importance of an institution like Velocity in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill?: Velocity really is a community gathering point. Not just for the dance community, but for the performance community. Classes like Dance Church have hundreds of adults come through those classes every year – they’re people who live in the neighborhood. They’re people who live on Capitol Hill. You know, anybody can rent Velocity. I’ve witnessed marriages, I’ve witnessed Black Pride parties, I’ve witnessed incredible performances. I’ve witnessed hundreds of people coming here to have transformative experiences through dance.

Also, Velocity has been a hub for growth on the Hill. Conversations about Leed Certifications and cultural certifications – many of these meetings and events happened at Velocity. It really is this kind of hub, meeting place, and a center for the community.

Macklemore had an audition for his video at Velocity and people were overflowing onto the street. Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You video was filmed here in Seattle, in the basement of V2.

There are a lot of cultural touchstones that people don’t know Velocity has been a part of.

What would you say the importance is of supporting programs like Velocity for our community?: I really do believe that the arts are critical to the health of our communities. The same way that we need to protect the environment that we live in, the arts are part of the health of our community and cultural environment. It is absolutely critical. Dance, in particular, is this way that we can come together in the most human way possible, and share truly transformative experiences.

We need to have these places where we can come together and have these transformative cultural community moments. After the Sean Dorsey performance, he went through 75 hours of interviews from the survivors of the early AIDS crisis. To be in that room with queer youth that had no idea the impact of the AIDS crisis – people who were sitting next to their partner of the last 60 years. To have those people in the same room, talking about their experiences across generations, across time, because of a work of dance, that’s irreplaceable. It is absolutely critical to the health of our community.

How do you feel leaving Velocity?: I feel like it’s just really the right time. I feel really grateful. I think that’s the feeling I have right now, so much gratitude. I feel really grateful that I am able to leave at a time that is good for me, and that feels like a really good time for Velocity.

Does it feel like handing someone else your baby?: Velocity was the community’s baby and I was given the baby to hold, and entrusted with it. I do remember, when I first started, Velocity was in a challenging position. In 2011, I was told, “Do you want Velocity to die slowly or quickly?” as if they were being helpful, and I remember thinking, the baby is not going to die with me holding it! It feels really good handing off Velocity in a much better position than my first day.

What’s next for you?: I’ve recently had an opportunity that really mirrored back to me that I have a lot of experience now that I can share in other meaningful ways. So I’m really excited to dive back in, but ensure that I have flexibility and time in my schedule write. That’s really my goal.

So we’ll still be seeing you around?:Yeah, I’m not leaving the Pacific Northwest. I recently bought my first home here. I have been offered to consider an opportunity in another part of the country, but I thought, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wanting to get back to the Pacific NorthWest. I recently bought a home here, it’s actually across the water, I’m staring at Seattle as I speak here. I just feel like I have at least a base here. I feel really connected, a real part of the Seattle arts community for a long time. It’s really a part of me, and I am really fiercely committed to it.

In fact, I’m going to be working with a choreographer and I have a bunch of projects. So really, I’m not going anywhere.

Tonya plans to stay with Velocity through the Fall for a smooth transition, and has curated programming through Spring of 2019 for the dance center.


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