Faculty: Tommi Galaska
The sound of music echoes from a nearby studio where Tommi Galaska sits cross-legged on a chair in a cramped office.
“It used to be a closet,” she said.
A ladder — of all things — occupies a spot in the middle of the floor, a useful tool for the East Carolina University dance instructor and choreographer to hang the play bills and posters that cover nearly every inch of the walls.
From “South Pacific” and “Rent” to “Young Frankenstein” and “Mamma Mia!” the posters chronicle her nearly 25-year journey at ECU.
“All these posters represent most of the shows I’ve done,” she said. “It’s been many years, many years.”
Asked to pick a favorite, Galaska naturally hesitates.
“It is like asking who’s your favorite child. You don’t have one. Each one is individually special to you somehow,” she said.
“Infinity Road” stands out as a dance production because it reminds her of her childhood growing up in Durham. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” comes to mind as the first musical theater production she choregraphed, and she looks fondly upon “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Mamma Mia!” in which she not only choreographed the productions, but also directed them.
“I love choreography. It’s fun to create a story through movement,” Galaska said. “I love variety and that I can use different styles of music along with different styles of dance. I’m a jazz dancer at heart, but there are many styles of jazz dance, and I really try to give my students the opportunity to work in all those styles.”
Still, it’s not necessarily the dances but the people she worked with on those various productions that she cherishes. She considers Mavis Ray, one of the founding members of ECU’s School of Theatre and Dance, a mentor.
“Being in that room and watching her choreograph is exactly the process I use,” Galaska said. “She taught me about timing and musicality. She taught me how to use every person in the room by giving them movement appropriate for their level, so they are valued as part of the dance. She also taught me how to use the entire set for choreography and movement instead of making all the action in the easiest place.”
And now she’s the one who passes on that knowledge to her students, but she’s mindful that her education in dance never stops.
“I’m a forever student,” Galaska said. “I love being a student and believe that you must love being a student to be a good teacher. It nurtures that thirst to grow. Learning new ways of moving and new ways to teach are very satisfying to me.”
For Galaska, her passion for dance started at a young age. She took her first dance class at age 3, following in the footsteps of an older sister, Nina Wheeler. After high school, she attended the Art Institute in Atlanta before transferring to ECU to major in art.
“I had a friend here who asked me to dance in one of her dances, and before I knew it, I was more and more involved, and I finally just changed my major to dance,” Galaska said.
After graduating from ECU with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance performance, she returned to Durham to work in her sister’s dance studio. She was eventually hired at Meredith College and then came to ECU to teach for what was supposed to be just a one-year assignment in the fall of 1998. She’s been here ever since.
Galaska specializes in teaching jazz, a dance style that she said offers a little bit of everything.
“I love jazz music, so that’s one thing,” she said. “Jazz dance has the heartbeat in it, the rhythms, the athleticism. I love that it’s like a big pot of soup that has all kinds of ingredients. Jazz dance formed from many, many different genres of dance, so it’s not one form in itself. It has influences from ballet, modern, African dance, flamenco and East Indian, to name a few. I like that it can be fast, but I also like that it can be slow. I love that’s it grounded and has a lot of shape and form to it, but it also goes away from that form, and I think that’s another thing that is cool about it: You can go away from the rules of form. I love to play around with that.”
Along with the numerous students she has taught, Galaska has choreographed more than 30 musical productions at ECU. She serves as the dance program coordinator and supports the Day of Dance in which the school brings in young students from the community to learn about dance. An Outstanding Alumni Teaching Award recipient, Galaska is the faculty advisor for the East Carolina Dance Association, the student-led organization that promotes the dance program through fundraisers and community events while providing students mentorship, academic support and social activities.
When not working, Galaska enjoys time with her family — her husband Jeff and their three sons Roman, Ryker and Rhettec — as well as walks, workouts, cooking and creating bead necklaces. She’s also involved in Multiple Choices for Children, a dance performance benefiting Duke Children’s Hospital.
“My niece was born premature, and so she spent her first month at Duke Children’s Hospital,” Galaska said. “I always remembered going to Duke and going into the pediatric ICU (intensive care unit), and I will never forget seeing her so tiny. She was like 3 1/2 pounds, but she was actually one of the bigger babies in the ICU, and I just couldn’t believe that. So, I asked my sister if we could put on a jazz show and let the money go to Duke Children’s Hospital. That first one, my niece actually danced in it, and that was the spring of 1987. My sister has kept it going, and I try to go in each year to do at least one dance. It’s been many, many years of doing that, and there have been a lot of students I’ve had who have been a part of that, and there are a lot who have been actual patients, my son included.”
The music continues to play, a peppy piano piece that seems entirely appropriate. It shows no signs of stopping.
“I love being a Pirate. I love Greenville. I love ECU,” Galaska said. “I love the fact that ECU represents eastern North Carolina. I think that’s super important. I get excited about that. I get excited about the town of Greenville, and that Greenville loves ECU, but ECU isn’t the only thing about this town. Greenville is a great town, and I’m happy that Greenville is my home and that ECU is my home.
“I feel blessed in that I really think that I’m doing what I was put on this earth to do. I was meant to be at this school and to teach jazz dance to students.”
Name: Tommi Overcash Galaska
Title: Associate professor of dance and dance program coordinator
Colleges attended and degrees: East Carolina University, Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance performance
Years working at ECU: 24
What I do at ECU: I teach all levels of jazz dance technique. I am a choreographer for the ECU/Loessin Playhouse, choreographing for musicals and dance concerts.
What I love about ECU: I love that our mascot is a Pirate. I love that our colors are purple and gold. I love that ECU is the heart of eastern North Carolina. I love that East Carolina promotes the arts in eastern North Carolina and beyond. I love that the people of Greenville and Pitt County are loyal to ECU.
What advice do you give to students? To welcome the idea of making mistakes. That is the only way we learn. I also advise my students to not compare themselves with anyone else in the room. Their journey in progression should be unique and specific to themselves.
Favorite class to teach: I love teaching all my classes, but I do have a special feeling for Friday jazz class because it is more about doing phrases for the people in the room. It is like being on a playground. We just dance without worrying about technique and focus more on self-expression.
What do you like to do when not working? I love to go for walks, work out, make bead necklaces, watch movies, cook for my family and friends, and watch my children play sports (especially baseball).
First job: I was a dance instructor at Nina’s School of Dance in Durham.
Guilty pleasure: Watermelon milkshake from Cookout
Favorite meal: Salad! I could eat salad for every meal.
One thing most people don’t know about me: I was an art major before I was a dance major.