When Natalie Benally went away to college, her parents weren’t sure she was on the right path. They considered her major in theater to be impractical. Benally, who’d grown up loving to sing and dance, wasn’t going to change her mind. But she understood their concerns.

“When you think about how much content and work is available for Native actors,” she said with a shrug, “it’s very limited. That was really my first take: If there’s no content out there, maybe I should be creating the content.”

Benally, thirty, is the Indigenous Programs Coordinator for Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, an after-school leadership program where she has worked for about two years. She brings Girls Inc. activities to girls at Cochiti and Tesuque pueblos and works with students at the Santa Fe Indian School. The position is new for her and the organization. It was created in fall 2018 because Benally, who originally managed onsite programs, saw that they could better serve the needs of outlying indigenous communities. She is also a dancer and choreographer, practices that blossomed during college. She performs at Santa Fe Art Institute’s Gender Equality and Wellness Fair on Friday, Jan. 25.

Since 2014, Benally has performed with Dancing Earth, a Santa Fe-based indigenous dance company led by Rulan Tangen. “Natalie stood out from the moment of her first audition, with a very large group of students at Fort Lewis College,” Tangen said. “I asked them to cross the room, each time embodying different forms of life: wind, water, hawk, cactus, earthworm. Each time, I wrote her number down — but each time I could not recognize her. Her artistry transcends the physical plane, with a full involvement of mind, imagination, heart, and spirit.”

At Fort Lewis College in Durango, Benally took her first formal dance class — an introductory course that was required for all theater majors. She hadn’t had access to ballet classes when she was a kid on the Navajo reservation near Gallup. So she’d found other ways, and other forms, to learn. “Where I grew up, no one shows you how to do something,” she said. “You watch and then you do it. There’s not an instruction manual. You look at it, see it, and if you mess it up the first time, you try again. I did a lot of watching of movies and music videos. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan.”

Leaving the reservation for college presented more of a culture shock than Benally had anticipated. There is a large population of indigenous students at Fort Lewis College, and Benally began struggling with her identity as a Native woman who had been raised Christian. She was among a sizeable group of students from tribes around the country, many of whom were deeply connected to their traditional ways. She didn’t speak Diné and had been discouraged from learning about Navajo religious practices and traditional dance. She floundered for a bit, and then joined an extracurricular dance club whose members taught each other and practiced together.

“That was my first real dance community,” she said. At the same time, she recalled, dancers and choreographers had started posting tutorial videos to YouTube. “In my spare time, I’d be practicing. If I was brushing my teeth, I’d be practicing how to do my wave.” She moved her arm in a loose spiral as she said it, her body instantly appearing fluid, her facial expression a mix of focus and remove. In her own YouTube videos, Benally conveys a tough exterior as she pops and locks — an attitude that presents a contrast to her in-person warmth. When she’s dancing, she said, she takes on a different persona, especially when she freestyles. “A lot of [freestyling] is based in improv and dancing in the moment. It’s very different from all the other things I do in life — being a parent, being a facilitator,” she said.

Benally returned to the reservation after graduating from college with a theater degree. She wasn’t performing often. In fact, she really didn’t know what to do with her degree. She had a daughter — now seven years old — and worked to support her. On a whim, she offered to teach dance on a volunteer basis at Wingate High School, the Native American boarding school she’d graduated from four years earlier. She found an eager group of students who were ready to learn, and she used dance as a way to help those who were struggling with trauma and mental health issues. She realized she wanted to focus on choreography and she wanted to teach, so she went back to Fort Lewis to earn a teaching degree. While she was there, Rulan Tangen and Dancing Earth staged a performance with students. Benally auditioned and was cast in the show.

In 2016, Benally joined Dancing Earth as a full company member and toured with their ecologically focused production, Seeds: Re Generation. The piece has traveled to several states, as well as Canada, Norway, and Guam. “Wherever we went, we did a workshop at a school or for a group who wanted indigenized movement perspective,” Benally said.

She also did some voice-acting work, playing the role of Dory in the Navajo-language version of Disney’s Finding Nemo (2016). She memorized her lines without always knowing what she was saying. “I grew up around it my whole life, but I still struggle with pronunciation. I know what people are saying and I can mimic it, but it doesn’t sound natural. I wanted to prove myself.”

At the movie’s premiere, her mother told her she’d never expected her to embrace her native language, but that she was surprised and proud to hear her speak it in the movie. Her parents no longer give her a hard time about her career choice, Benally said.

After two years touring with Dancing Earth, she began looking for teaching positions in Colorado, hoping to provide a little more stability for her daughter by staying in one place. Tangen alerted her to the job opening at Girls Inc., where she would be able to work on her leadership skills while doing community outreach — and remain in Santa Fe. She spent fall 2018 traveling to Colorado every weekend, however, to direct Fort Lewis students in a multimedia collaborative dance piece called I’m Native and ... for the college’s first Indigenous Arts Festival. Seven of the 11 performers were Native. “It’s about our complex, rich, diverse identity,” Benally said.

In February, she will travel to California with the Fort Lewis students, who will perform the first scene from I’m Native and ... in Festival 51, at Region 8’s Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

“The choreography and movement in this scene carry a sense of chaos and urgency as we show images of Indian boarding schools, of conquest, of the situation in Standing Rock, of missing and murdered indigenous women,” she said. “It is a very fast-paced section and sinister, in a way, because we begin with how the cycle of colonization and injustice continues and continues — and how it affects us to this day. My goal was to acknowledge this and show it in its rawness and honesty, but then we transition to how do we overcome it? How do we break the cycle? How do we persevere?” ◀

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▼ Natalie Benally performing at Platform: Gender Equality and Wellness Fair

▼ Santa Fe Art Institute, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive

▼ 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26

▼ No charge, $10 suggested donation; visit sfai.org for info.