I present to you, the one and only Pual Malek! You may know him from So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With The Stars, Transit Dance, as the bestselling author of The Secret to a Successful and Happy Life, or a multitude of his other creative endeavours. Above all these accolades, he is still Paul Malek: human being, with a ton of wisdom to share. For me,this interview really helped bring a new perspective to the world and was just generally heart warming. We talk about career paths, choreographing, mindsets, persistence, and everything in between. I can’t wait to see where this interview takes all you amazing readers!
Disclaimer* all of Paul’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of their answers have been slightly condensed with his approval.
What is your current profession?
My title is Artistic Director of Transit Dance, however that includes a myriad of roles. I design all the course and production elements at Transit; part of this role is overseeing other people actioning decisions, but you will also find me in the studio choreographing and teaching. Alongside these roles, I am often behind a camera and managing our social media platforms. Marketing is another huge area that comes under the umbrella of my title. In an essence, I’m a professional ‘creator and problem solver’.
What has your career path been?
It has been a pretty ‘cookie cutter’ dance journey thus far. My mother was a dance teacher so it was always in my life, however, I began classes at 5 years old. At 12 years old I was accepted to Victorian College of The Arts Secondary School (VCASS), which meant half my day was spent on academics and the other half in dance classes. My life trajectory was always heading towards dance. At 15 I entertained the idea of trying pro tennis but dance won out, and other than that, spending my life in something other than the studio has never crossed my mind. Straight out of highschool I got a job as a backup dancer on a cruise ship, and with perseverance and a little luck, I became rehearsal director for Norwegian Cruise Line at 23. I remained in that role for 2 or 3 years. Returning to Australia after this cruise ship work helped me realise I wanted to keep being on the other side of performances. I had a consistent performing career from the age of 18-24, and was ready to take the next step to the other side of the curtain. I love lighting design, I love production, I love choreography, I love sitting in a dark auditorium watching a creation come to life. I went on to open my first production company at 27, this was alongside Kim Adam and was called Collaboration Project. Through this we created new works, employed professional dancers, ran a youth company, and eventually started running industry events. 2011 saw me start a media and marketing company alongside Chris Curran titled Boom Media. At that stage I was running both Collaboration and Boom simultaneously, alongside a substantial amount of teaching. I felt a large pull towards the education side of things, I wanted to have more control over what I bought to an organisation as a whole, rather than just the studio. This saw Collaboration and Boom integrate and form what is now Transit Dance. Transit allowed us to move into the dance education sector, because I believe that dance education had the opportunity to be delivered differently. That’s not a negative outlook on how anyone else has delivered dance, it was more of a feeling that there’s so much more that needed to be added to the holistic side of education, and making people more sustainable in the art form, rather than just good in a studio. I feel we were missing the link of creating the next producers, the next dance administration people etc. We were losing people who were losing touch with dance because maybe they didn’t get their contract, and they didn’t like teaching. There was this idea where if you didn’t become a dancer you became a dance teacher, and there’s so many more opportunities in dance and creation and art that people can be going into; even if they’re not going to be a dancer themselves. My career path has also seen me work on TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing With The Stars.
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art, if so could you share it?
“We are the greatest problem solvers of our own existence”.- Paul Malek (from his latest book The Secret to a Successful and Happy Life)
I think this is so relevant at the moment. It’s the main quote in my book I just released, and it’s this idea that we consistently are faced with challenges that we have the ability to overcome. We don’t need to rely on the world to treat us nicely, we can problem solve and we can actually discover how to become greater at what we do every day. We are the people who can best navigate whatever we face.
What values within yourself did writing a book speak to?
The book itself includes multiple chapters on values, they are so important to me. We can have goals and we can make decisions, but when it comes down to it, we always have to come back to the values that define us. The values I based the book on are my own core values, which are also transit’s community values. They are respect, responsibility, and resilience… my three R’s.The world is complicated. We have social media, google, wars, hate, and an abundance of information and complicated situations being thrown at us; it’s so much easier to navigate these complexities if you have a few core words that define how you strive to act. The book is about finding your own secret on what happiness and success means to you. It explores how you can utilize those simple core values every single day, and how they can affect the lives of those around you. I find even if it is a down day, you can still find some form of success and happiness by holding to your values. For me, writing this book was just another way to live out my own core values, the three R’s.
What was the first step in your book creation process?
The book is composed of stories from my life and what I learnt from those stories. Sometimes I would start with the story, other times I would have a core value or lesson I wanted to include in the book and then have to go back and think about what parts of my past helped make those values or lessons so prominent. The first step was just me planning chapters and grouping together stories and lessons to see where they fit.
Are there any usual thoughts that run through your head before you step into the studio?
“I’ve got this” is always my thought as I enter. I never pre prepare a class, I just trust what will come out of me will be relevant to that moment. My thoughts are more around what vibe I want to set and being open to seeing what vibe is already there as I enter that studio. Sometimes I’ve just run out of hours of board meetings as I head into the studio, so it’s all about bringing myself to the present moment and trusting my instincts.
Do you feel it is important to cultivate a rich life outside the studio as well as within? If so, in which ways do you approach this task?
It is so important to create a life outside the studio as well as within. I’m a big believer in finding passion in everything you do. For example, I absolutely love photography, I had no idea how much I would connect with it until I tried it. I have been photographing for over 13 years now, and whilst it is incorporated into my profession, it is very much my time away from the studio. We always need to find something that we are interested in, away from white walls and mirrors, or a ballet barre, or the theater, because those moments are so precious and treasured; if we never leave them, they become stagnant and stale. You need to continually be able to find inspiration without looking for it, it needs to come to you. At different points in time I’ve realised I needed a new adventure, because if I keep just doing the same thing, I’m going to be uninspired in what I do. I never want to feel uninspired because I love what I do. Finding space away from the studio is actually cultivating your passion within the studio, because you need external influences. if you’re not finding ways to express yourself outside the studio, then you’ll never truly evolve into the artist you could be in the studio.
What values within yourself does cultivating a ‘safe dance practice’ mean to you?
I’m very big on safe dance practice, yet at the same time I’m kind of going through this transformation; if you focus continually on safe dance practice you actually put mental blockages that could create an unsafe practice. If you use terminology such as ‘if you do this, you will get injured’, dancers will always hold tension, therefore, they most likely will injure themselves because they are trying to avoid injuring themselves in that moment. For me, safe dance practice starts with mental health, and I think there is zero focus on mental health, especially in young dancers. If you are mentally healthy, you are aware of exhaustion. There’s so much current research saying 80% of injuries happen within the three weeks leading up to a performance. Stress has a very large part to do with that. It’s that performance anxiety that you can’t get injured and you must be in your peak condition and therefore you actually injure yourself. You are stressed and are getting tired, you are not resting enough, you’re obsessing over that performance. So, I believe that it starts with mental health. If the mental health component is being looked after, then there is so much information out there about how to avoid injury. I think as teachers and educators, we are not curious enough about our own professional development to actually grasp onto these leading scientifically proven ways to avoid injury and put it in our own practice, simply because we’re so obsessed with our own way.
What is your view on dance stereotypes and approaching them in the studio?
There’s so much that opposes what dance stereotypes are in today’s society. The past 24 months have seen what is being taught in primary schools and secondary schools completely change. However these same developments aren’t being taught to the people who are also educating students outside school in dance environments. Dance teachers are less educated (on some topics) then the students that we’re trying to teach. Language is so critical and we’re saying the wrong things all of a sudden, but we don’t know that we’re saying the wrong things. The world is evolving so quickly, if we’re going to talk about what is safe within dance or what even is dance, then we have to talk more, listen more, and understand that things have changed greatly in a very short amount of time. We need to ask ourselves how we can include these changes into our own practice as educators.
You often work closely with your Mum, do you feel spending creative time together adds depth to your relationship?
My Mum and I are very close, and I would definitely say sharing creative interests has bought us even closer. We have similar interests, she’s a storyteller, and I’m known as a person who tells stories through dance. That is a lineage that I think I gained from my Mum. There are also beautiful memories I have from my childhood, just creating and choreographing solos in the lounge room with Mum. Does all this mean we always agree on things? No. Running a business is also very different to just simply creating, so I think creating with family and running a business with family (even a creative business) are two entirely different things.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
No matter what is happening in my life, no matter what is happening in the world, no matter how many no’s I get, no matter how many things go wrong… every single morning I stand in the shower and say ‘I must persist’. Every time people hear the word no and they give up, they give up on the opportunity for that next yes. I think that the only way I’ve gotten to where I am today, is the fact that I have never given up on something I believe in. I think persistence is greater than determination, because I can lose motivation to be determined, but if I persist through that down lull, I’m going to get back up again. You can not always stay motivated because we are emotional beings, especially as artists, we are vulnerable. We are open, we take on other people’s emotions as well. The idea of persistence is definitely more my fuel than motivation, it’s everything that keeps me going.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
I have honestly failed so many times, but I think my greatest failures have been the times where I’ve tried to be what I perceive other people want me to be, rather than just being who I am. Every time I try to put on a mask is generally when I get knocked back. When I am myself is when I evolve. When I’m wrapped up in what others think of me I stop creating, because I just get too self conscious. It’s not worth trying to change and please people who will never be pleased with us, because they think differently to you.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
There is so much power and importance in being yourself. You are achieving something every single second by just simply breathing. We over complicate success, it has to be about doing what you’re passionate about in each given moment, because who knows when life will be taken away i.e. COVID. Focus on the now and who you are with, rather than where you want to go or the people you’re trying to impress to get there.
You can find Paul on IG @paulmalek or reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org