17 | GiGi Tonye'
- Follow GiGi Tonye' on Facebook and Instagram!
- Follow Crowned Elites on Facebook and Instagram!
- Check out the Dance 4 Our Lives event! If you’re looking to either help volunteer or sign up this Memorial Day, reach out to GiGi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By now, you’ve seen Childish Gambino’s This Is America (and probably the flood of meme’s that’s followed 😂).
I won’t get into depth with a video analysis; so many others have already taken up that task. But...I do want to highlight how the video portrays dance as distraction and expression for the youth in the video. In the face of senseless violence, dance is both an escape and a means of survival. Unfortunately, Chicago is no stranger to this violence. Our city has attained poster-child status for police brutality, gang violence, and crime, and the public often looks to Chicago as a prime debate battleground.
Oftentimes, all we do as viewers of this madness is well...nothing. We lament over the tragedies and listen to the news and debates - which, at the end of the day, can be exhausting. But then we forget that throughout the news reports and constant political debates, our youth all this time are still dancing - not just because they have to, but because they need to. Don’t get me wrong; these conversations do need to happen, but let’s not forget that real people are being affected in real time.
Sometimes we don’t need people to say; we need people to do. Sometimes we need people to not just talk about how we can fix things; but talk about how our youth already have within themselves the power to create and celebrate. I’m of the viewpoint that until action happens to make our solutions a reality, positive and meaningful change hasn’t happened yet.
This is why I love so much what GiGi Tonye' is doing in Chicago.
GiGi’s upcoming event this Memorial Day - Dance 4 Our Lives hosted by GiGi Tonye’ Arts and Fitness seeks to provide a creative outlet through dance for youth in Chicago throughout Memorial Day weekend - historically one of Chicago’s most violent weekends.
The lineup is stacked full of activities! There’s a set of dance workshops throughout the day (including one for ages 7-17 led by yours truly 😉). The inclusion of the Men in Dance and Women in Dance sessions allows youth to discuss and explore their own dance development, breaking stereotypes, and social issues in an environment of brotherhood and sisterhood. Youth participants also get a mini photoshoot, video shoot, and gift bags. There will be something for the adults and parents too - fitness, yoga, and hip hop classes if you want to join the weekend training!
The cherry on top is on Memorial Day, with participants hopping into a two production shows for some valuable dance industry experience. It’s a great event that GiGi hopes will create and encourage more arts opportunities to be developed, especially in the South and West sides of Chicago, which are often overlooked.
GiGi: “I know that there's a scattering of resources in Chicago and I feel that there’s also this sense of segregation among the arts. I am a firm advocate of just unity. I appreciate everyone's different forms of art, and love bringing it all together in a space where we can learn from each other.”
It’s about taking dance and utilizing it not just as a distraction or expression, but as a means of empowerment and community building.
Achieving Unity Through Dance
What GiGi is seeking to achieve in Chicago is unity. Unity for our artistic community and city. A way to use dance and the arts not solely as a distraction, but more completely as a positive means for combating perceptions of our Chicago.
On a more personal level, GiGi is working to utilize the arts to create opportunities for our youth to express themselves - for themselves and for others. To create purpose in movement.
It’s no easy task, but it’s one that GiGi embraces joyfully - and she is staying bizzzzz-zeeeee! She currently directs the all-female dance group Crowned Elites, just finished up a performance run in the Black Ensemble Theater’s latest production It Goes Down in the DM, and is building her own brand GiGi Tonye’ Arts and Fitness. (Did I mention she’s a mom, too?) *insert applause here*
Make Your Own Opportunities
As a child, GiGi didn’t have too many opportunities to take formal dance classes because of cost and time. But hey, who said you needed to go to dance class to dance? 😜
You can dance for free.99, and that’s what GiGi did. She would put on little shows for her friends in the neighborhood, creating dances for her sister and cousins to perform.
GiGi: “My friends would have to know a secret password to get in, and we would do three or four dances for the little kids that would come. I would literally study dance music videos, learn the choreography and just showcase these dances.”
This willingness to just go out and do things without making excuses became a trait she carried on throughout school and into college. When GiGi got to undergrad at St. Xavier University, one of the leaders of the campus ministries actually approached her about creating a Christian dance team on campus.
GiGi: “She was like, I want to know if you would like to be a part of the group, and I’m like - sure! I thought she just wanted me to join the group.”
Turns out, that’s not what the ministry leader had in mind.
GiGi: “She's like, ‘great, so you're going to choreograph the dances and include everybody’ and I was like, that's not what I signed up to do. I ended up recruiting, creating and leading the group.” 😲
So I mean, it happened anyway, with GiGi naturally stepping into the role. The team GiGi created was called the Chosen Few (Not to be confused with the house group, The Chosen Few. 😅)
**Side note though, if you’ve never experienced a house music set at a Chosen Few festival - you mighttttt want to add that to your Summer 2018 bucket list. But actually. Go go go.
GiGi: “The Chosen Few was a group of about 20 dancers. They were a good blend of male and female. We would practice two to three times a week, travel to different places and it's like...the choreography would come to me - it was simple. I could just hear the song and then I'll make it up so quick.
I taught fraternity/sorority style step. I did a hip-hop and an African dance. I choreographed modern and lyrical - but actually I didn’t know that’s what those styles were called at the time.”
John: “So, at this point even though you’re leading this group and creating dances, you hadn’t received any formal training yet.”
GiGi: “Yeah - I would choreograph dances for people who had been dancing for years, but I didn't know any of the technical terms.”
It actually wasn’t until after GiGi graduated that she received her first formal experience with dance training - attending a dance conference in Dallas, TX.
GiGi: “I was like - This is amazing! Where have I been? I was exposed to all these different things. I recognized African dance because I’m Nigerian-American and grew up being exposed to that, but everything else came at me so quick. I didn’t know what modern dance was, what contemporary was, what lyrical was - even hip-hop. I had been doing the movements that I had seen but I didn’t know what was what. It's just crazy when I would get into class and realize the moves that I had been doing had specific names!”
After this first taste of formal training, GiGi decides to continue training back in Chicago. The first training stop was at Footworks Dance Studio on 76th and Eggleston: training in modern, contemporary, and ballet. She’d go to different workshops and intensives around the city, receive training through her church’s dance ministry, go to Hubbard - anything and everything she could get her hands on.
It felt natural to her. Despite all the new technical terms GiGi was learning, at the core the movement itself felt like home. Like learning there’s a word for something that you’ve been doing or experiencing all your life. Like keubiko (a state of exhaustion caused by acts of senseless violence) or less seriously, a hanker sore (finding a person so attractive it actually pisses you off.) 😂😂😂
From Healthcare to Full-time Arts
If it sounds like GiGi was pursuing dance full-time at this point, she actually wasn’t. GiGi currently has over seven years of experience in healthcare administration and management. She received a master’s degree in health administration and worked in various healthcare capacities, from private practice to home healthcare to the hospital setting.
I mean - dance was always there, but it was always in the background, never taking center stage. It wasn’t until three years ago - 2015 - that GiGi made the decision to pursue art full time.
GiGi: “I never planned for a career in the arts, but God has his way. I came to the decision through a lot of prayer. Even around the time when I was graduating grad school, I noticed that my desire for art wasn’t going away.
It was a hard decision to switch because I was so used to what I knew in career in healthcare. I knew how much I would get paid, and I would be paid regularly - it was consistent.
Now that I’m in the arts full time, pay changes depending on the week, and it’s all dependent on my own hustle. And that has been an adjustment. It means that I have to reprogram my whole way of thinking even with money.”
If that amount of life change wasn’t enough, GiGi notes that her family life was going through a tremendously challenging time as well. Her now ex-husband left the house, leaving GiGi to care for her daughter as a single mom unexpectedly. Anyone who’s ever been a parent knows that... you can’t just turn things off for the moment - it’s a 24.7 job. But GiGi kept moving. GiGi’s first step after deciding that she was going to leave healthcare as her primary career was to find a part-time job.
Stepping Into The Industry
GiGi: “I drove past this talent agency - K Model’s Talent. I had never heard of it before, but I walked in there and a woman happened to be in. I had just walked in thinking, ‘hey, I’m interested in learning more about this.’
The woman happens to be the owner, and she’s like - ‘okay, I’m going to have you audition.'
I didn’t have a headshot or a resume or anything, but I did a cold read for a commercial and I sang. I submitted old dances I had done in college.”
Things picked up pretty fast after that. GiGi officially joined the agency within the week - a step that GiGi considers her first real step into the dance industry arena. She trained at K Model’s through a 12-week training class where she learned her foundation and got her headshots and resume completed. Other people through her growing network would help her as she learned the hustle of the dance business. GiGi started doing more teaching and after-school instruction. She enjoyed working in youth afterschool programs, but after those programs ended, she saw many students unsure of where to turn if they were interested in continued mentorship and artistic opportunities - something that she had received herself in her own childhood.
That’s where the spark hits. GiGi recognizes an opportunity to really build something beyond the after-school dance programs. Although she never saw herself as an entrepreneur, GiGi started looking to start a business of her own. A brand of her own. A nonprofit. All. Of. The. Things.
It might sound like a lot - and it was. But GiGi was going through a renaissance of a creative period. The ideas streamed through constantly, and each night she would every last detail down.
GiGi recognized that she needed help and guidance to get these ideas off the ground and into reality. She sat down with a business mentor who helped her as she organized everything. Flowchart after flowchart was created, laying out every single one of GiGi's ideas. Parent companies. Smaller initiatives. A 10-year business timeline.
The Brand: GiGi Tonye’
GiGistates that she’s just in the first year of this timeline, but she’s building fast.
GiGi: “GiGi Tonye’ as a brand is about helping reveal God’s purpose through the arts for people - we primarily serve youth ages 7-17 (and adults as well). I know a lot of students may not recognize their full potential. They might be lost, and I want to help them find that purpose and meaning. Even from my own story, I was a late bloomer with dance, but I was always exposed to some type of art. When I was growing up in school I was blessed to have teachers that exposed me to that, but there are young people here who they don't really have that kind of surrounding. They go out and do different things that are not so constructive and positive for their lives. And so that's my mission - to create that positivity.”
Participants in GiGi’s programs receive formation through dance training, mentorship, as well as - wait for it - healthcare and fitness, where GiGi is able to draw on her past experiences in the healthcare industry to serve others.
John: “So you were able to continue using your prior knowledge and talents in the healthcare industry to make your current work even better!”
GiGi: “I’ve seen how a lack of healthcare and basic nutritional and fitness knowledge can lead to the point of death for people even my age. It’s important to serve adults in that aspect of nutrition education, as well as to build a healthy foundation early on for our young people. It’s not just dance. It's health. It’s purpose. It’s all of those things.
Beyond GiGi Tonye as a brand, GiGi has this vision for the creation of a centralized hub in the City of Chicago, where three things can happen:
GiGi: “The first thing is the creation of a consistent place where students can get continuous and consistent training. I realized that we train our students in afterschool programs, but oftentimes they can't come and get additional training from us you know like when the program is over.
Secondly, I want to create a hub for our growing dancers in Chicago - a resource for them to get access to whatever they need there - maybe headshots, resume prep, and formal training including and beyond the dance movement training.
The last thing is that I believe in the power of mentorship. I want the hub to be a place where leaders lead leaders; for mentors across all artistic disciplines. All the creative arts. Visual, Music, Performance arts.”
All of this at its core lies in GiGi’s belief in the power of creation.
GiGi: “I'm a Christian and I just believe that our Creator is creative. I do firmly believe that that there is power in creation. There's power in what is created and then there's power in the things that create. I just believe that the greatest impact that we can have in the city for the youth is to have a flood of creativity. Something the youth can really put their energy into. Even negative energy. Use that energy towards a purpose to eliminate a lot of the issues that we're having as far - crime, all these other social issues in our communities. Let the youth be artistic let them explore those things, whether it's dance or singing or songwriting or rapping or learning different instruments or visual art - let them have that exposure to those things so that they can have a creative outlet, whether they choose to pursue it as a career when they get older, or even if it’s just something that it keeps them focused in the now; something that gives them hope and purpose.
Even looking into the science of it. There are areas in the brain that focus solely on creative function and that area of the brain has to be engaged. Stimulating the creative parts of the brain helps with cognitive focus, relieving stress, and emotional development. Or even think about just being able to have a positive and therapeutic way to deal with the issues that happen in our lives. Arts are necessary - in our schools, and in our city. It can literally save a child’s life.”
Building a Stronger Team for the Future
At this stage, GiGi knows that she’s got a great opening act for her business and goals, but she knows that in order to take this work further, she’ll need some help.
GiGi: “I know that I don't have all the pieces to the puzzle. I'm not too proud or prideful to admit that. I know that whatever I don’t have as my own strengths, someone else does. I’d love to find people that are akin to this mission and allow them to flourish. I know I need to find a good solid team of people who can can bring their ideas and their own strategies and seeing how we can create positive change for the city of Chicago."
😉 Maybe that person is you? (You can sign up to Volunteer here!) ⭐