Meet Nela Hallwas

“The art of dance is the art of expression, compassion, acceptance, release, and will now serve us all in so many important ways.”

Nela Hallwas was born and raised in former Yugoslavia. She is the founder and owner of XBa School of Dance in South Surrey.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, what did you study, and what was your impetus to become a dancer?

I was born in the former Yugoslavia and grew up in Quebec, where I studied classical ballet with L’Ecole de Danse Lacasse-Morenoff and classical piano performance at L’Ecole de Musique Marguerite-Bourgeoys.  Growing up in an Eastern European family, an education in the arts was an absolute necessity.  Though I was being groomed as a classical pianist, my inability to stand still, and unending love for dance and the visual arts took over.  I discovered modern movement and contemporary dance in my late teens,  pursued my post-secondary education in the visual arts in California, and then back in Canada to complete a Bachelor degree at SFU, majoring in contemporary dance, and film.  My visual art and my film work were always inspired by dance movement:  as much as I loved to dance myself and felt an almost impossible need to perpetually move, it was always most gratifying when I performed in a choreographer’s or directorial role.  My passion was to CREATE movement, be it live, still, or filmed.

Image by Nela Hallwas

The COVID-19 crisis has forced many businesses – small and large – to pivot the way they offer services. How does Xba offer services to the community? Is there a silver-lining in all of this for Xba?

2020 began with an offer to myself and XBa Dance to present at the 56th World Congress for UNESCO’s Conseil International de la Danse, this coming July.  The honour is a recognition for a lifetime of work as a dance artist.  The COVID-19 crisis has taken this beautiful start to a very dramatic close.  Due to the crisis and to an Order of Closure from Fraser Health our studio remains dark and quiet.  XBa is renowned for creating loud, large-scale live performances, and our most important work is the connection within our dance space for every dancer there.  XBa is and always has been a safe haven for dancers of all ages, where anyone who is ready to train hard will be given the opportunity to dance and perform.  My main focus in the crisis is to try and remain there for our students; particularly the teenagers, and pre-teens who now are very lost.  We communicate through Zoom meetings, we are offering virtual classes, and we have loaded our private Vimeo channel with tons of free training videos for our students. As a business, we have been hit hard like everyone else, but it has taken me 20 years to build this incredible world of art expression and I will fight for it.  We will continue as a virtual educational environment for now and will morph back into our true selves as soon as we can.  

We are blessed with the largest dance studio space in BC. Our 3000 square foot dance studio will lend itself very well to physical distancing and we are ready to move towards multiple smaller classes and adapt as needed. I may have cried at the onset of this pandemic, but nothing can take away our legacy, our history, and the recognition we have been awarded.  

We will persevere.

WHEN did you join Semiahmoo Arts and what was your motivation to join?

I was a member years ago but thanks to ongoing communication with Ulee, I now see the potential Semiahmoo Arts has laid out and I have great hopes for a solid community group that I can turn to, and be a proud member of from now on.

HOW do you ensure that artistic legacy is passed on to the next generation?

By truly and completely living my art on a daily basis;  my children have been educated in the arts and are artists of their own.  By establishing XBa as an internationally recognized dance art education facility, and seeing our graduated students highly successful in various forms of art and athletic careers.  Our dance school already has children of former dancers who are now students themselves. By educating our students, not just in dance as a physical outlet, but as well-rounded performing and visual artists.

HOW can the art of dancing be combined with other forms of art, such as painting or photography?

My friend Helmut Gruntorad and my XBa dancers did this recently, at White Rock’s Landmark PopUptown Gallery.  My exhibited paintings were inspired by the dance movement I create;  my dancers appeared live in the gallery setting and performed site-specific, in-the-moment movement inspired by the paintings;   Helmut captured the dancers and the art and with his keen eye and post-production talents created new tableaus by combining my paintings and my dancers’ live movement into a whole new still experience.

May is Mental Health Month. How does the art of dance support and foster our mental well-being?

At XBa we are in touch with our students, whether through virtual classes or by communicating through emails, texts, Zoom, FaceTime, social media, in whatever way we can.  At this time the most important thing is to not lose touch and to keep creating in our new world.  

We listen intently to our students, particularly our teens, and allow them to share their emotions, their thoughts, their feelings. Through virtual classes we are, as dance teachers, learning to adapt and will continue our legacy of allowing for personal expression through movement, by guiding our students into adapted improvised expression.  

International Dance Day was April 29th and for XBa it is one of our most important yearly events. There was so much sadness with the closures of performance spaces and the inability to be together, so I asked my dancers to send me short video clips of themselves dancing wherever they are.  They started arriving and I then spent about two days creating a video collage. The time spent with my students that way had me crying, and laughing, and was healing for my own mental state.  It also encouraged me to find new ways to keep creating with my XBa families and seeing everyone together through this difficult time.  The art of dance is the art of expression, compassion, acceptance, release, and will now serve us all in so many important ways.

Image by Helmut Gruntorad

WHAT is your favourite dancing quote?

Just Dance.  Those two words are tattooed on my daughter’s foot.  She is my greatest dance art creation and those simple words are what her and I are using right now to get through this crisis together.  When the world gets complicated, we move.  It may be on a beach, on a dance floor, in our minds, on a canvas, or through a lens, and we just dance.