Meet Karen Sun Ray

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Karen Sun Ray Coletti: Full Interview

This month we celebrate the birthday of Hip Expressions co-founder and Performance Director Karen Sun Ray Coletti. Karen is Hip Ex’s most versatile dancer, and her brilliant choreography is evident in the bi-annual Tribal Burn shows and other Hip Ex productions. Karen can dance more than 30 different folk dances from around the world and has studied forms as diverse as Hip Hop and Armenian folk dance. Her versatility shows in her instruction at Hip Ex, as she leads two student troupes; the Desert Stars, who belly dance, and the Polynesian troupe the Island Flowers. Karen leads the Island Flowers in performing an exhibition dance at the prestigious Hoike Hula competition in Orlando on July 23-24.

Q. How did your dance journey begin?

A. My dance journey began as a little girl. My mother was a dancer and my father played music (not professionally). My mother once said that I “danced one day and walked the next.” Polynesian dance was my first dance form, starting at about age 2. At about 6 years old my father taught me to play ukulele and I learned the songs of his native Indonesia and the well-known candle dance. Our household was a very international place, as we had students from the University of Miami, who were from all over the world, at our home on a regular basis. This experience grew my love for culture, dance and language.

As a young teen, after having moved to Gainesville, my mother started teaching Polynesian classes around town and was the Emcee and singer for a local Polynesian show at the Hilton Hotel. We also performed together at private and public events. I started attending weekly International Folk Dance gatherings at the University of Florida. There I met Illeya Hamwi, a student from Syria, who taught me the basics of belly dance and how to listen to the phrases in the music. In my early 20's I became the Performance Director for this group. I had the honor of creating choreography and performing with the local, internationally acclaimed ballet company, Dance Alive, in their production Dracula, using our folk dancers as the Villagers in the production.

In the early 1990's, I helped form the dance troupe, the Sahnobar Dance Ensemble. Our troupe also includes musicians. We performed at many events around Florida (including EPCOT & Universal Studios) and have been performing at the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire in Gainesville since 1992. In the mid 1990's I moved to St. Petersburg and became the Performance Director for SPIFF's (St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society) International Dancers. The late 1990's I spent a summer touring the country with a professional Polynesian troupe. In the early 2000's I had the great fortune of meeting Johanna when she came to town and attended one of my belly dance classes. We continued to spend time together and became friends, and danced together at many events. This is also when I added fire performance to my repertoire.

Q. What are some highlights of your dance career?

A. Performing when I was 15 at an international event at the University of Florida for an audience of over 1,000 people and receiving a standing ovation for performing a Tahitian O’tea dance.

- Guest performing with Dance Alive professional ballet company in their productions of Dracula and Tom Jones.

- Performing a drum solo with the band Oojami in concert in Clearwater.

- Performing on the ship HMS Bounty for the descendants of the original Bounty, who traveled here from Pitcairn Island.

- Fostering our dance community alongside Johanna here in Tampa Bay over the last 20 years!

- Coming up, July 23-24, performing an exhibition dance with my Island Flowers at the Hoike Hula competition in Orlando.

Q. Johanna said that during the first class she took with you she admired your encouraging and accepting manner. What was your first impression of Johanna and the prospect of collaborating with her?

A. The class that Johanna attended, to my embarrassment, was probably one of the worst classes I ever taught! I thought to myself, "OMG, she's going to think I'm crazy". She was very kind and I felt a connection with her. Soon after this we had a lunch date, and the rest is history!

Q. How does a student "graduate" from just taking class to performing?

A. This can happen in a variety of ways. We offer choreography courses for beginning/intermediate students, so they can challenge themselves, when both they and the instructor feel they are ready. These choreographies are usually performed at one of our monthly shows where they have the support of our dance community; a loving and enthusiastic environment for them to share their love of dance. We also have some studio troupes that offer participation, to the discretion of the director, which allows for a more serious student who shows competence in skills and is ready to dedicate themselves to attending more classes, rehearsals and is ready to purchase costumes.

Q. From your perspective as Performance Director, how has the past year gone for Hip Ex and what are your hopes for the future?

A. These past two years, as with everything in our world, has brought many changes in how we have been doing things. I am so very grateful to Johanna's perseverance and dedication to keeping our studio going during these challenging times. Her ability to innovate, lead and roll with the punches, never ceases to amaze me. It seems that one of our studio's strengths is being able to adapt, change and keep moving forward. So I think we have done quite well in being able to keep our shows and performances going. The silver lining being that now that we are able to broadcast our shows via the internet, we have been able to increase our audience. My hope for the future is that we continue to grow our community, provide the knowledge of movement expression to all who seek it and find joy in this process.