Karla Puno Garcia’s success has followed a trajectory laid out by her many mentors and heroes. In the next phase of her career as a choreographer, she is forging her own path, creating work—entire musicals’ worth of work—that turns heads in the best way.
Garcia grew up as a competition dancer at Fran’s Studio of Dance in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a school known for churning out Broadway performers. From a young age, Garcia had her sights set on following those alumni’s footsteps. The first step on that journey after high school was New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned her BFA in dance. “That experience expanded my idea of what movement can be,” she says. “I had never taken modern before then, and it was eye-opening to be around dancers with different backgrounds from me. It was great to be exposed to other styles and training.”
During her senior year of college, Garcia attended the open-call audition for Broadway’s Hot Feet. “That was my first big break as a performer,” she says. “Ironically, it wasn’t a great show. In fact, it was labeled one of the worst shows of the millennium. But it’s how I got my equity card and an agent, and it gave me the opportunity to work with Maurice Hines.” What followed was a swath of enviable professional opportunities, including: Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the Wicked national tour, “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 5—all of which led to her landing a gig most Broadway performers can only dream of: Hamilton. “I settled in there for six years because I felt so at home,” Garcia says. “Not just with the family of performers, but with the show generally. I felt like, artistically, I belonged.” For a time, Garcia hadn’t been quite sure where her “type” fit into a lot of musicals. But with Hamilton, she felt her cultural background and Filipino ethnicity were “welcomed and embraced.”
Garcia’s choreography is influenced by the various choreographers she has worked with, most notably Hamilton choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. “The way he uses an ensemble really affected my growth as a choreographer,” she says. “He communicates the intention and reason behind every piece of movement. It was a master class in teaching.” Observing mentors like Blankenbuehler take the path from dancer to choreographer, Garcia realized she might want to take those steps too. “I still love performing other people’s work when I love the material,” she says. “But it’s even more exhilarating to create work for others and have my voice seen in that way.”
Garcia is currently choreographing a new musical, NOIR, by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Kyle Jarrow (SpongeBob), directed by Darko Tresnjak (Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).
Between stints on Broadway, Garcia began picking up teaching opportunities at dance studios in the tristate area. “Growing up, dancing professionally seemed like a big enough target to aim for,” she says. “But waiting tables wasn’t for me, so I picked up teaching as a side gig and found that I both enjoyed and was good at it.” As she choreographed competition numbers for various studios, her students expressed excitement about the material. In 2016, Karla got a permanent slot at Broadway Dance Center. Once she joined the cast of Hamilton, her already popular theater jazz class took off. “I would teach to the maximum number of people the studio could hold,” she says.
Here, she shares the tools that have made all the difference in her teaching journey:
Her pre-teaching warm-up: “I do light stretches and a bit of Pilates. I fully warm up with my students during class, so I just like to get the blood flowing.”
Her go-to teaching attire: “I usually wear Lululemon or Free People leggings, a loose crop top (Lululemon, Alo, Fabletics or an old T-shirt I cut up from Urban Outfitters) and LaDuca boots.”
Her secret to staying energized: “I drink an iced coffee (black with hazelnut) and eat a banana before class.”
Her favorite nondance activities: “I’m a huge movie buff, so I enjoy going to the movies or watching a series. If there’s a pool or park nearby, I also love to sunbathe.”
Her ideal day off: “Leisurely waking up, doing a Pilates mat workout, sitting or walking in the sun with a cold-brew coffee, making dinner with my fiancé, drinking a glass of wine, and watching a movie at night”
Recommended reading/watching: Paris Is Burning documentary about the house ballroom culture in New York City and Big Deal, a book about Bob Fosse’s work
Items she never leaves home without: Aquaphor lip moisturizer and lavender hand sanitizer
Her guilty pleasure: “Watching rom-coms like Hitch and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days— movies I’ve seen a million times already”