The crushing weight of being told that she would never make it as a ballerina because she did not fit the image was too much for a then 11-year-old Tre Armstrong to bear.
On her return home, the devastated youth grabbed a butcher’s knife and pressed it against her stomach.
“At that moment, I asked God to stop me from doing this if I was meant to do anything in life,” she recounted. “All I wanted was to be a Black ballerina with my Afro and everything and then to be told I looked different was overwhelming. At that point, I contemplated suicide.”
While the racial divide still stymies the growth of Blacks in ballet, Armstrong has toured the world dancing and choreographing and now she’s giving back to those whose parents can’t afford to enrol them in dance classes.
Last week, the ‘So You Think You Can Dance Canada’ judge launched the Tre Armstrong Give Back Foundation at an impressive “Spirit of Dance” party that featured dancers, contortionists, drummers and glittering carnival-themed costumes.
“Dance saved my life and I am living proof,” she said. “Growing up wasn’t always pleasant for me and dance was my release. I know the importance of it and that’s why I decided to create initiatives that will allow young people to take part free of charge. I want to make dance and creative artistic expressions accessible to youth across this country.”
Through the registered non-profit foundation, individuals will also be provided with opportunities to develop life skills through enjoyable youth programming and performing arts.
Armstrong, who at age five started dance lessons in ballet, tap, jazz and hip hop, got her first big break when she was selected from among nearly 1,000 candidates to be part of the Missy Elliott 2004 concert tour. Over the years, she has also worked with Rihanna, Robbie Williams, Phylicia Rashad, Paris Hilton, Jay-Z, P. Diddy and 50 Cent and choreographed Ludacris’ music video, Breakaway.
“I remember taking Tre to her first dance class when she was five years old and telling her this was the start of something big,” recounted her elated mother Lynne Armstrong who attended the launch. “I sensed right away after her first recital that dance is her passion…I also believe in giving and Tre has followed that path. I am so proud of her and how far she has come.”
Last year, Armstrong and her friend Tonya Burke started a professional dance academy – A New D.A.E.I. – that’s designed to be a skill development centre for aspiring youth performers and a community hub for dance classes, workshops, educational seminars and special events.
Burke sits on the Tre Armstrong Give Back Foundation.
“We met 11 years ago while dancing for a local Toronto group and Tre has always been ambitious and has had big dreams,” Burke said. “She’s a go-getter and once she puts her mind to something, she doesn’t stop until she gets it.
“Giving back has always been a priority of hers. For Tre, it means a lot for young people who might not otherwise be able to afford these artistic endeavours to come out and participate.”
With Financial help from ArtReach Toronto and the Laidlaw Foundation, Armstrong set up the D-Tour 12-week nurturing program that uses urban dance to promote life-building skills for boys and girls in the Parkdale community where she once lived.
She made her acting debut in 2005 and the following year acquired a lead role in the drama film, How She Move, which showcases step dancing and street culture.