BallroomBees founder and professional dancer Katya Virshilas talks to us about empowering children to follow their dreams. From acting in Hollywood to her time on Strictly Come Dancing, Katya is now tackling gender stereotypes here in Hong Kong with her own kids dance concept – for boys as well as girls. We chat to her about the importance of owning who you are and doing what you love.
Katya Virshilas (see her Instagram here) is one determined Mama. Not only did she prove her first dance teacher wrong to become a championship-winning dancer, she also conquered Hollywood and became a household name on Strictly Come Dancing. She started her own business – BallroomBees – right here in Hong Kong to challenge gender stereotypes and celebrate diversity and inclusion. Oh, and she’s one awesome Mama to her two boys!
We sit down to chat about the journey that lead her into the world of dance, how having positive role models and support from adults can help children thrive, and why Katya is so passionate about diversity in the ballroom. She also reveals how she met her dancing legend husband, Klaus Kongsdal, plus, we get a Sassy Mama exclusive on who is the better dancer: Richard Gere or Antonio Banderas (*hint* it’s a close call…).
How old were you when you realised that you loved dancing? Who or what inspired you?
I’ve been dancing since I can remember! I love music and my parents always had friends and family over around and music was always flowing in the house. My aunt is a ballerina and I started taking classes when I was 6 years old in Israel. We immigrated to Vancouver when I was 12 years old and that’s when I first saw a Ballroom Dance competition on ESPN and was absolutely mesmerised. The costumes, makeup, music, it was amazing! So I asked my mom take me to my first Ballroom dance class.
When did you realise that you wanted to become a professional dancer? How did your family nurture and support that dream?
I was 13 years old when I finally took my first Ballroom class and that is considered very old. My teacher told my mom I was “Too old,” and that “Nothing would ever come of me.” I took it very personally.
“I think until this day, when people tell me “No” or “It’s not possible”, it fully ignites a fire inside to prove them wrong.”
My mom would pick me up after school every day and drive me to the dance studio to practise; I missed a lot of high school parties and sleepovers. I started winning local competitions and it got a lot of attention from the local media and my school. It was amazing to see how if you practice and train hard you are able to get better at your chosen skill or art form. I was inspired by all the champions and I wanted to become a champion myself and I knew I had to leave Vancouver. My family paid for all my lessons, dance costumes and travelled around Canada and the US and finally helped me to settle in Toronto where I went to college and found my dance partner who I would then become the Canadian champion with.
Dancing seems to run in your family! How did you meet your dancing champion husband, Klaus? Was it love at first sight?
I knew of and studied Klaus’ dancing before we ever met. He is very well-known within the world dance community, along with his dance partner Viktoria Franova. Together they were Danish champions and European Champions. When my path took me to London to do Strictly Come Dancing, we were introduced to each other at the BBC bar in October 2009 where it was love at first sight.
What brought you and your family to Hong Kong?
Klaus has been coming in and out of Hong Kong for over 20 years as the professional dance scene here is extraordinary. He also used to own one of the most successful dance studios here. When I was pregnant in London and retired from dancing to start a family he suggested Hong Kong as our next adventure and I was up for it!
You mentioned that you set up BallroomBees due to a lack of dance classes for boys. Can you explain why you are passionate about making sure classes are available to all?
Empowering boys in dance is the reason for why I started BallroomBees. I wanted to create a safe and creative place and programme where boys feel comfortable to dance and express themselves.
“Boys somehow grow up thinking dancing is for girls and it is weak. How sad is that?”
Usually, of course, this comes from parents, in particular dads that basically think dancing is for the weak. I love changing these types of minds and usually, all of them secretly want to learn to dance themselves!
“During my time at Strictly Come Dancing I personally trained top football and cricket players and showed them how dance can help their speed and agility.”
Dancing teaches boys how to be around the opposite sex, to be respectful and to learn lifelong skills that they can use in life.
Is it challenging to teach little ones ballroom dancing?
Working with young children is a huge responsibility that we take very seriously. The BallroomBees program was designed and developed with early year childhood education experts and together with our years of experience and dance knowledge we were able to create a language and structure that is easy to follow and so FUN to do. Children learn to adapt to our creative class structure. We train our teachers with that in mind and make sure our language is the same through all our classes and locations.
When youngsters join BallroomBees they’ll learn a wide variety of skills such as agility, gross motor skills, interaction with their peers as dance partners, respect for themselves and their peers, as well as their teachers – all whilst having a lot of fun!
You’ve won many championship dance competitions and you were the youngest–ever British Columbian Latin Dance Champion at the age of 16. Do you think your kids will follow (or Foxtrot!) in your footsteps?
I am not sure if our children will follow in our footsteps but you never know. We just want them to be happy, so we are currently exposing them to many extracurricular activities, including dance. But soon they will need to choose. Of course, both boys are dancing and just saw their first dance competition in New York. They were really inspired by all the children there.
Who are your sons most like, you or Klaus? Or are they 100% their own personalities?
Oh gosh Alexander my 6-year-old is something else! He talks like he is 30 years old and is absolutely obsessed with animals, snakes and spiders. He is not shy and always makes sure everyone is aware that he has stepped in the room! Marcus, our youngest, is much more shy and follows his brother around (they look like twins but are 2 years apart).
Did becoming a parent change your view on the world? If so, how?
Becoming a parent changes everyone. Even if you think you will not.
“I love experiencing everything with them for the first time, like their fascination with everything new.”
They are fully the inspiration behind the creation of BallroomBees and they have been my test bunnies for all games, choreography and our manual behaviour.
What music do you and the kids dance to around the house?
EVERYTHING! Thunderstruck ACDC is one of our favourite crazy dance party songs. Salsa and latin music is on all the time and, of course, Disney tracks of whatever Disney movie is in at the moment. I try to educate them about all types of artists and eras.
Tell us about Hollywood! How did you land the roles in several movies and TV shows in Tinseltown?
I walked into my regular practice session with my then dance partner to my usual home studio in Richmond Vancouver, where:
“A very famous dancer and an American choreographer were training Jennifer Lopez. Right there and then I said hi to her and they told me there was a perfect role for me.”
They were casting for a small role “Perky Girl” to play opposite Stanley Tucci (Devil Wears Prada, Hunger games). I had the small script memorised and auditioned on the spot. A month later I was told I got the part! I flew to Winnipeg for three months to work on Shall We Dance with Jennifer Lopez, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. One of my jobs was to dance and train Richard Gere, along with most of the stars on the film. I then moved to LA and then back to Vancouver where I got into acting full time. From TV in shows like Smallville and Supernatural to films such as Take the Lead, alongside Antonio Banderas.
Who’s a better dancer, Antonio Banderas or Richard Gere? (We had to ask!)
OHHH that’s hard. Richard is definitely an amazing Ballroom dancer but Antonio is a passionate Latino. I mean, he is Zoro! He can do everything!
Let’s talk about Strictly Come Dancing in the UK. What is your favourite memory from that show?
Wow, so many amazing memories! Dancing my first live show in front of 9 million people was an incredible experience. I have worked with countless celebrities but becoming friends with Anita Dobson, the wife of Queen’s lead guitarist (Brian May) was a highlight. Listening to her stories of Freddy Mercury on tour was phenomenal. Dancing live shows in Wimbledon and being on live TV every Saturday night will always be a highlight.
What advice would you give other parents who’s kids want to become professional dancers? How can parents support their kids in their dreams and aspirations in the Arts?
Encourage and praise your child, even when they make mistakes
It’s important that your child knows that they have your support, even when they make a mistake. Point out the ways you see them improving and how they can learn from their mistakes.
Teach your child to be a team player
Cheer for the other students in the classes and encourage your child to do the same. This will help your child form friendships with the other dancers, rather than solely focusing on competition and comparison.
Give your child responsibilities regarding his or her classes
Allow your children to pack their own dance bags, lay out their own dance clothes and take care of their dance shoes. This instils a sense of responsibility and discipline in your child and allows them to take ownership of their dance career. We always hear kids say “Oh my mom or auntie forgot to pack this for me,” to which we always answer that it’s their own responsibility.
Support your child’s instructors
The dance instructor wants only the best for your child. Support the instructors by reinforcing the lessons at home or asking your child to show you what they learned after each class. This will give your child extra practice time and teach them to respect their instructors, improving the learning experience.
You are a busy mama! When you’re not in the dance studio you’re either in international dance competitions, building an empire, or running 22 locations of BallroomBees. How do you relax at the end of the day? And what do you like to do with the family in your free time?
I love creating adventures. My husband always hates it when on a day off instead of watching a movie on the couch I make everyone go and do something! But for me, being with friends, eating good food, drinking nice wine is a beautiful and simple way to relax. A treat for relaxation would be a spa day though that’s for sure! I love to cook and organise as well which sometimes helps my brain relax.
Read More: 101 Things To Do In Hong Kong With Kids
Which other Hong Kong working Mamas are you cheering on from the sidelines?
I love the female support in Hong Kong and I have been so lucky to be surrounded by these inspiring Mamas:
- Ifat Hindes – Award-winning wellness entrepreneur, @ifathindes.
- Sarah Keates – PR, marketing and communications powerhouse, @sarah_keates_.
- Ziggy Makant – Eco-conscious FitMama, @zig.fitmama
- Emily Lam-Ho – Eco Drive Mama, @emilylam.ho
- Denise Pontak – Photographer and mama of four, @pontak04
- Marina Hoyle – Russian/Ukrainian Mama, co-found of the Russian Culture Festival, @marinahoyle
- Jessica Tan – Miss Universe Singapore 2007, @JessicaTan22
- Trixie Isla-Velez – Fitness trainer, @3xcvelez
- Iana Zinovieva – Makeup artist and founder of Wish Beauty Bar, @wish.beauty.bar
- Aliya Althoff – Mama behind the bespoke Jewellery line Althoff Jewelry, @althoffjewelry
- Sarah Vee – Mama behind Women Of Hope, @sarahvee.asia
What’s the best piece of advice your Mama gave to you?
I have a few quotes that I go by:
“Nothing is impossible, there is always a way” (I really don’t take no for an answer)
“Everything will be okay at the end, and if it’s not okay that means it’s not the end.”
Special thanks to the talented Janelle of By Janelle Photography for the beautiful photos of Katya and her family. The shoot took place at the beautiful SDF studio where BallroomBees run classes every Monday (SDF, 3/F, Vulcan House, 21-23 Leighton Rd, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong).