Pam Vlach: Compassionate Portlander Turned NYC-Based Dance Educator & World Traveler
Editor’s note: Although she’s currently a New Yorker, Pam has deep PNW roots. She’s originally from the Portland area, but I actually met her in Seattle in the early aughts, when we were sorority sisters at the University of Washington. I even had the role of her “big sis,” which means I’m totally allowed to be proud of all of her impactful accomplishments, and the creative life she’s built for herself in NYC. I suppose it’s possible that I’m a bit biased, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be equally impressed. -Dena
(Also, you’ll find more insights from Pam in this weekend’s newsletter, so sign-up here to catch it!)
Name: Pam Vlach
Where did you grow up?: Portland, OR
Where do you live now?: New York, NY
What do you consider “home”?: Anywhere my husband and my dog Bailey are. We travel a lot, so I’m learning to adapt to new places. Bailey has become quite the little traveler, too!
What is your career path?: Dance, though what I’m doing depends on what day it is. I’m currently at NYU for an MA in Dance Education. I love to teach, and when I’m working on choreography, I feel the most alive. I’m also part of a New York based tap company called Les Femmes, led by Germaine Salsberg. They’re an amazing group of women, and dancing with them gives me life. And, I’m the Director of Dance at the Riverdale YM-YWHA in the Bronx, where I oversee an amazing faculty and about 200 students ranging in age from 3 to adult.
What other passions do you have?: I go to spin class almost every day. Also, since I’m a dancer (and a tap dancer in particular), music is a huge part of my life. Delving into jazz pieces and doing tap improvisation, or working to understand musical phrasing is a lot of fun for me. I also appreciate exposure to music from other cultures (like at the Bat Mitzvah I recently attended, which was the first synagogue service I’ve ever been to. I was fascinated by the intonation and phrasing of the Hebrew music in the service).
Favorite thing about the PNW?: The Coffee! And Wine! Also, the air is so clean in Portland. I always get off the plane and feel like I can really BREATHE.
How do you take your coffee?: Nonfat latte (BORING, I know)!
How do you keep track of notes and info?: I’m in grad school, so I’m writing in notebooks a lot these days. When I’m recording tap choreography, I usually sing the rhythms into my iPhone voice recorder so I remember later. Sometimes, something will come to me that I can use in choreography, and I’ll be on public transportation softly recording my voice into my phone singing tap rhythms. I’m sure people think I’m crazy.
Favorite season in the PNW?: Spring! Hands down.
How do you protect yourself from the rain?: In Portland, I get wet. In New York, I carry an umbrella. Go figure.
What do you love talking about at parties?: I love hearing about other people’s backgrounds, particularly if they’re different from me. I can get carried away asking questions. I’m particularly curious about people who grew up or lived in other countries, or who have traveled extensively.
What are people surprised to learn about you?: I’m kind of a thrill seeker, despite seeming careful in my regular life. I like to ski. My husband is Swiss and Czech, and he took me to Switzerland a few years ago, where we skied in the Alps (despite the fact that I’m terrified of heights). I’m also kind of scared of the ocean, but we did a night dive with manta rays in Hawaii, and snorkeled with sharks in Belize. I have a lot of fears, but I guess I don’t allow fear to stop me from life-changing experiences.
What’s the best decision you’ve made in your life?: Marrying my husband. He gives 100% every day, and he challenges me to be the best person and partner. I’m better because I know him.
What’s the best decision you’ve made in the past year?: Going back to school! I love NYU, and spending time with my cohort and the faculty has opened my world. I never loved school as a kid, but studying something I’m so interested in with other people who are like-minded has been energizing and validating.
How did you get to where you are in life? Personally, or professionally?:
Well, personally, I was diagnosed with Graves Disease last year, and after about eight months of stabilizing, life is different. I’m grateful for every day and for the people and experiences that make me smile. I also view my contributions to the world differently. Now, I’m more wholehearted in my work as well as my personal life. I’m waving my freak flag. I don’t hold back in honesty or passion, and I’m attracting the people that should be in my life as a result. Professionally, I just go for it now, and I try to be fearless. I say “yes” as much as I can, and I approach each new experience with an open mind. I’ve learned to seek out the people and experiences that offer growth. I suppose this also goes back to doing things you’re uncomfortable with. Sometimes I do just have to pay the bills, but while part of my time may be spent doing that, I’m always dipping my toes into other opportunities.
Has any specific woman or women in your life made a significant impact on you?: So many. Too many to name. What I will say is that I’ve been fortunate to build a network of women of all ages, from varied backgrounds and different career paths. For some reason, as women, we can be each other’s worst critics. I think all women have been on the receiving end of that at some point. I’m the Director of a dance program in the Bronx, and I’ve tried to create a culture within my dance faculty of supporting one another in our careers and growth. As women, we juggle so many people and obligations, and finding work/life balance can seem near to impossible. The more we talk about that and support one another, the better off we’ll all be.
What brings you joy?: Quality one-on-one time with people I love.
What are the most cherished parts of your day?: MORNING. We were in Italy in June, and I got up early and ran every morning as the sun rose. I love that quiet time before everyone else wakes up. Particularly, living in New York City, it can sometimes be the only quiet time of my day when I’m not surrounded by people and noise.
What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?: When I was younger, I was more focused on external validation. I’m much more interested in working from the inside now, so “feeling complimented” has changed. I’m the most honored when I have a connection to someone who really “sees” who I am and somehow finds a way to express that.
What’s your most ambitious career goal?: I’m discovering a pattern in the aspects of my career that I love. In teaching, I want to create a place for creative expression. My husband says that I was put on this earth to make children happy. If my legacy in this world is that I did just that, and helped children develop a strong emotional base (through dance) that will carry them through their lives, I will be thrilled.
Any “wish list” or “bucket list” items?: More travel to new corners of the world. And, I’d like to choreograph a children’s show focused on empowerment that gives kids a way to talk about identity and emotions through dance and movement.
Tell us about your recent trip to Uganda, what made you want to go?: I went with my grad school program to teach dance and learn about Ugandan dance, culture, and music. One of my NYU professors approached me about the trip in the fall, and I was hesitant at first, but decided I had to do it. I have a general rule in life, which is do everything that makes you uncomfortable. I knew it would be a chance to grow, and I’m in a chapter of my life right now that’s all about growth.
Was there a “normal day” or any kind of routine to the trip? What did it entail?: There were two
main goals for the trip. One of the goals was teaching dance to children in teams of four (two Ugandans and two New Yorkers). The other goal was performing at the National Theatre. Days were divided into time with our teaching teams, rehearsals and lectures, outings to various arts centers, performances, and places of historical significance (we met the queen of the Bugandan kingdom!), and teaching children. We were so welcomed everywhere we went. I’m still processing the generosity of the people there, and all they gave to ensure we were safe and happy. So many people on the Ugandan side gave up almost three weeks of their lives, essentially to take care of us. It was humbling.
Any specific memories or highlights the capture that overall mission or vibe of the trip?: Emotionally, visiting the centers on the outskirts of Kampala was really significant for me. We did quite a bit of that in the first few days of the program, and many children live at those centers. The kids are amazing performing artists because there’s a strong culture of dance and music there. I remember telling them during a tap class I was teaching that I was so impressed because they had picked up a step quickly that was rhythmically complex for beginner tap dancers. I complimented their musicality and told them about my observations of their abilities, like how they have a knack for rhythm and weight change because of the music and dance in their culture. They started cheering, and I looked around and just saw joy, despite the hard conditions. It was a moment that I’ll never forget because it made me realize the role of arts education in the world. It also determined my purpose as a dance educator there. My path has completely shifted now as a result of moments like that.
Another memory was when one of the girls who danced with us in the show went back to her school and taught the other children the tap combination I had worked on with her. When we visited her school near the end of the trip, all the kids performed it for me. They take care of each other, and they’re very focused on the collective group. In the U.S., we’re a highly individualist society. To experience the collectivist society mindset in the way that we did was a highly unique experience. We weren’t tourists. We were treated like family.
Any big lessons that you took away from the experience?:
I can say with certainty that I found my core again. What I mean by that is that I’m a deeply feeling person, but living in New York, I put up barriers and set boundaries to protect myself. These boundaries are sometimes necessary because it’s a tough world, but holding onto love and emotion and denying it an exit causes me a great deal of anxiety. In Uganda, I felt safe to just feel whatever I was feeling in the moment, and to express it. I’ve never cried so much (or laughed so hard) in the span of three weeks. I’m not sure how that lesson will manifest here in New York. I think the honest expression of giving and loving will stay with me. It’s really who I am anyway, so I’m happy to have found my way back to it.
And, also that Arts Education has the power to change the world. Deborah Damast is my professor at NYU who accompanied us on the trip, and this was her eleventh time taking a group of graduate students to Uganda for this experience. She had this way throughout the trip of gently showing us the power of dance and music education. I’m newly committed to advocacy for arts education both in the U.S., and on an international level, and I feel comfortable embracing that new role for myself because of her example. By the end of the trip, I just wanted to teach the kids as much as I could. It was truly a return to the simplest form of dance education. Teachers and students. No music. No shoes. Just singing (and maybe drums), creativity, outside spaces. I loved every second of it.
How did it change your perspective on life in the U.S.?: I’m not viewing success or material items in the same way. All I can think about is collecting more tap shoes for the kids and saving money to get back to Uganda and teach. In Uganda, I was so happy in a tiny hotel room with a roommate, sharing everything, and living out of a suitcase with about five outfits. There was a beautiful simplicity in it that I can’t figure out yet how to replicate here in New York. I think the solution for me now, in order to find balance, is to get back as soon (and as often) as I can. I have a sense that this will change my path.
How did the experience shape your feelings and interpretations of the current events in the U.S.?: Before I left, I was worried about politics in the U.S.. I think regardless of what side you’re on, it’s clear that we have a problem, and there’s some serious division in this country to be concerned about. One thing that I knew before I left is that traveling is really important for understanding American politics. Hearing other people’s viewpoints on an international level is invaluable for understanding what’s happening stateside. The people in Uganda are concerned, and they felt badly for us. As people of color, a few friends there expressed that they don’t feel welcome in the U.S. anymore. I had a wonderful long conversation with one Ugandan man who told me he cried during Obama’s farewell speech and that he’s worried about this new administration because America’s diversity (and all the talent and intelligence that comes with that) is our strength as a country. He’s worried that if the U.S. blocks people from coming that we will lose some of the qualities that make us a great country.
Shortly after returning home (and the life-changing experience I had with arts education), I found out that the new administration is looking to dramatically downsize (or eliminate altogether) the National Endowment for the Arts. I took it as a sign that one of my new callings as an advocate for arts education starts now.