Katy Harris-McLeod followed anything but a conventional path to a career in dance. The 28-year-old Toronto native did not pick up steps before she had learned to talk, nor did she start choreographing when she was six. After high school she earned a degree in social and cultural studies at Trent University. She did, however, always have a passion for the art form, which is perhaps the most important quality of any given professional.
Lounging over a mug of herbal tea in Yaletown, Harris-McLeod explains that early dance classes quashed any sense of positive body image, a common experience among wannabe ballerinas. It wasn't until years later, when she headed off into the Northern Ontario bush to go tree-planting, that she realized just how much she adored moving.
"I was so physically into my body; it was such a raw lifestyle. I loved it," Harris-McLeod explains. Then there was her boss's young daughter, with whom she hung out every night after dinner. Together, they'd make up routines.
"I had an epiphany," she says, opening her arms. "I just said, 'I want to dance. This is the new me. This is great.' "
She didn't waste any time. She applied immediately to Vancouver's MainDance Bridging Program and moved out to the coast two weeks after being accepted.
Harris-McLeod concedes, however, that during those first few weeks of classes five years ago, she felt as if she was in over her head. "I had passion, and total naiveté," she says. "I was the person with the least training and I had to get up there. It was a wake-up call. But it was fantastic. I was so gung ho."
After graduating last year, she did an apprenticeship with Jennifer Mascall Dance, appearing as a butler in that choreographer's Housewerk at Hycroft mansion. She, Jennifer McLeish-Lewis, and Sarah Wendt formed the Emerging Artists' Trio, which performed at last year's Dancing on the Edge. The group has also commissioned a piece from Montreal's David Pressault.
Her capabilities on-stage belie her relatively late start; Harris-McLeod has a compelling charisma, theatrical aplomb, and strong technique. She has dabbled in contact improvisation and tango; she won over viewers at the latest Dances for a Small Stage; and she stood out in the March premiere of Martha Carter's Interactive Digital Urban Ballet, a hip-hop--heavy, multimedia rave-up. She'll be working with Carter, who's the dance artist in residence at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, again this fall. She's also performing in Radix Theatre's Half a Tank in October. And, along with Radix's Paul Ternes, she has leased her own studio space in Gastown, where she wants to create her own character-driven dance.
Harris-McLeod describes her progress as "crazy", but says there have been rough spots, too, particularly the experience of having her heart broken.
"Everything has been happening for me on a very big scale," she says. "When it's bad, it's bad. When it's good, it's amazing."
She might be a newcomer to the dance world, but for Harris-McLeod, it seems that things are unfolding as they should.