Reading through Tiana Canterbury's résumé, it's remarkable that this Capetonian is only just 29 years old. With more than 15 years of dancing experience, specialising in hip hop, dancehall, break, funk, salsa, afro and disco, Tiana has been a choreographer for all three seasons of So You Think You Can Dance Australia.
She teaches dancing, has choreographed and performed at Parliament House in Canberra, and has been a back-up dancer for Guy Sebastian, Chingy USA, Nitty USA and Montell Jordan. The list goes on…she's also the Face of Champion and was an extra in the movie Matrix. And she choreographed The Starlettes Motown Show that is currently touring Australia.
In addition, there are very significant aspects to her life that aren't in her résumé: Like the fact that she's also mom to 10 year old Lexus and four year old Rome.
Tiana moved with her family to Australia when she was almost 10 years old. Initially based in Melbourne, they relocated to Sydney when she was about 12. One of the things that stood out for her when she arrived in Australia was the difference in culture compared to South Africa where people were friends with their neighbours and would talk to one another in the street. “I have taken my kids back to South Africa and it is so different. There the kids are all playing outside in the streets, whereas here they are inside watching TV.”
Going back to South Africa for the first time in 2008, Tiana says it was a great opportunity for her daughter to find out about their roots. “It was good for both of us. I hadn't gone back before because I was scared as everyone talks about how dangerous it is. Also I had my family in Australia so I didn't need to go back to see family. But then my daughter started to ask lots of questions about South Africa,” she says.
“We both fell in love with South Africa: The culture, the humour, the way people chat to their neighbours. It just brought me back to basics. I also realised how easy we have it here in Australia. I saw cousins in South Africa who are the same age as me, and also single moms. I felt for them as they do not have the financial support and opportunities that we have here. Yet, they still have a smile on their faces. I love that. It really opened up my eyes and motivated me even more to be successful here in Australia.”
During her visit to South Africa, Tiana says that she realised that there are so many opportunities for young people in Australia, and that many people here, including migrants, are extremely motivated to get somewhere in life. “People my age in Australia are buying a house, getting a business up and running. They are motivated to do these kinds of things and there are opportunities enabling them to achieve these things.”
One of Tiana's goals for the future is to continue spreading the word about the importance of dance for children in primary schools as a way to develop confidence and express themselves. In addition, she would like to work with children who have disabilities and autism and develop dance programs for them.
Although never technically trained, Tiana has always had a passion for dance and performing. She put shows together at a number of schools while in high school and performed at Wonderland theme park. It was during this time, at the age of just 13, that she was spotted at a school night by the chart topping Dowlut Brothers of Australian R&B group Kaylan/Disco Montego. This resulted in introductions to international and national artists and other people in the entertainment industry.
Tiana wasn't able to pursue her passion full-time initially and just a week after finishing high school she started a job Westpac. “The job wasn't for me at all. I was a single mom at the time so it was quite something for me to leave a nine-to-five job to follow my dreams and passions,” she says.
However, Tiana started to get work, did back-up dancing for Guy Sebastian, performed at the MTV and Aria awards and got into teaching dance. Tiana works closely with her fiancé R&B/neo soul artist Mike Champion and choreographs most of his shows.
Then came So You Think You Can Dance Australia. Tiana says that, as a result of her work at the Urban Dance Centre in Sydney, she was asked to meet the show producers because her style of dance is different and would be challenging for the contestants.
Tiana says her lack of technical training during her early years has been compensated by being surrounded by trained professional dancers from whom she's learned the discipline as well as techniques. “Compared to many other dancers I relied on my performance skill to capture the audience. Others rely on technique. I went the opposite way and then picked up the technique as I went along,” she says.
Tiana has found it challenging to find work in the dancing world as a person of a different nationality and colour. “There are not a lot of roles for us in theatre. It is fine doing back-up dancing, but there are not many roles in theatre, and that's a challenging part of being a South African of colour in Australia.
So You Think You Can Dance is a highlight in Tiana's career, but she regards her own business and an initiative to teach healthy eating and fitness in schools as her biggest achievement so far. “There are four of us from different nationalities who do a show and workshop with children in primary schools. I feel that it's so important for children to be able to express themselves.”
In addition, Tiana does charity work and is involved in helping the South African community in Australia. She has organised performances and done stage work for the annual African Festival and the Aboriginal Education Council Festival, both of which are held in Sydney.
Attributing her success to being passionate and committed, Tiana says that her advice to anyone who wants to dance professionally is to get as much training and knowledge of different styles of dance as possible. “Have a good rapport with everyone. It is a small industry and it can be bitchy. But be true to yourself. Be honest with yourself and others and know what you're doing as far as techniques and styles go.”
On a personal level she says that she doesn't really know how she juggles looking after two small children and her demanding career. “I have great support and family members who are always there to babysit at the drop of a hat. It is a highly challenging job to combine with having children, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I feel lost when my kids aren't with me and I'm at home. I don't know how to sit and relax.” Like many mums though, her personal goal is figuring out how to juggle the demands of being mummy and a businesswoman.
Other Highlights in Tiana's Career
- Choreographed and performed at VIP events including Australian Fashion Week Runway Show for the Infamous Tight Knickers and Wish fashion labels and the Australian Dancehall Queen Championships
- Performed at launches for Elizabeth Arden (Roca, Britney Spears, Hilary Duff)
- Was the Face of street brand Champion clothing
- Worked alongside star of SBS' Fat Pizza Anthony Salame as stage director of the sold out ‘Anthony Salame's Christmas Special'
- Toured Australia as lead dancer of the 2008 Smash Hits tour