As liberal arts students tune into their passions, some might find that what began as an extracurricular interest might become their life’s mission, as Natalie Johnson ’13, an English major and dance minor, quickly discovered.
Hailing from rural Colorado, Johnson originally planned on going into law but changed her mind after taking Choreography 270.
“I was a ballet and jazz teacher in high school at a studio for children, ages six through eleven, and I made pieces for them,” said Johnson. “I had never made a piece for my peer age, or considered the amazing thought of making a piece for other people who are better dancers than me. It totally opened up my world and made me think, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Johnson has been taking dance lessons since she was six and first became serious about ballet, tap and jazz in middle school.
On campus, she has expanded into modern dance, choreographing and dancing for the spring and winter dance productions.
Johnson’s deep involvement in the dance department includes leading Arabesque, the College’s audition-based ballet group. She not only runs the group and choreographs the performances, but also offers a ballet technique class on Sundays for all skill levels.
As a dance minor, Johnson has taken almost every class the department has to offer, and taken three independent choreography studies. In Johnson’s experience, choreography is a mixture of method and instinct.
While she sometimes sets organized goals and tasks for herself, much of her work is generated through experimentation.
“My process can be going into a studio late at night by myself and just improvising,” said Johnson. “Maybe it takes two hours where I’m just there, moving around and playing different music. Or in silence, I actually really like silence a lot.”
“You learn just as much, or more, in failure as you do in success. To fail teaches you a lot. To succeed feels wonderful but sometimes we don’t pick up as much information from that.”
Dancing at Bowdoin has taught Johnson to pick herself up after falling, literally and figuratively.
“I think for dancers, and maybe for people in general, we are afraid to fail. Especially with something that is about how you look and what your body is doing,” she said. “For me, Bowdoin and my experiences outside of Bowdoin...[have] taught me that it’s okay to fail. You’re in a safe place where you can learn and grow from that.”
Although she has met some challenges in pursuing dance at a small liberal arts college, Johnson believes it has been the right place for her.
Being in a smaller dance community than she would have been at a conservatory, she has been able to impact the department, and receive fellowships and scholarships to study intensively.
“One of the good things about it is that I’m a bit of an anomaly, and therefore can maybe help change the department or show that people are interested in dance,” she said. “It’s just that there aren’t so many of me that I feel like I’m drowning in dancers. I’m able to get my work seen.”
Johnson appreciates Bowdoin’s approach to dance, which is more relaxed than the strict, body-conscious approach of conservatories.
“Bowdoin’s approach is much more open and more new age, kind of where dance is moving to anyway. You dance with the body and ability that you have, and that’s just as beautiful.”
The downside to being one of the few dancers on campus is that there is less acknowledgment of the merits of the art.
“People aren’t used to there being dancers, and they aren’t used to dance being a serious academic study. In some cases I’m afraid that dance is seen as the class you take to get your VPA, and it’s the easiest way to do it,” said Johnson.
“People are surprised that I’m taking four dance classes this semester. It is a lot, but would it be surprising if you were taking four government classes? Probably not.”
Johnson plans to move to New York City in hopes of refining her art in pre-professional dance training programs.
“I’m just doing what I love, and I would hope that everyone else is doing what they love, too.”