From a head-nod to a basic two-step to complex moves executed by greats like Janet Jackson, Alvin Ailey, Misty Copeland, and more—without the art of dance many of our favorite singers, videos, and productions, would be a lot less exciting. Professional dancers have trained for years to make sure they are physically on point, and choreographers lend their artistic vision to create some of the greatest performance art that we have ever seen. But they don’t always get the acknowledgement they deserve. American Urban Radio Networks (AURN Online) wants to change that.
Our new series, Dancer Diaries, will explore the world of dance with perspectives from professional dancers who practice a variety of styles. Our first feature is Mayte Natalio, a native of Queens, New York, who has trained professionally for most of her life. “I would describe my style as pretty versatile, full-bodied, and more ‘raw and human’ than pretty or pristine,” Natalio tells AURN. “All of my experiences influence what I create. I come from a family of Dominican immigrants. I grew up in Queens. In Jackson Heights and Corona, the biggest melting pot in the world.” Natalio studied dance at the world famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and Performing Arts at SUNY Purchase. She has worked with industry leaders like Parsons Dance Company, Camille A. Brown, Juilliard, and Barrington Stage Company—to name a few.
Most recently, she served as associate choreographer for Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera and choreographed one of six shows entitled Another Rose for the first cruise ship launched by Virgin Voyages. We caught up with the choreographer to chat about where she draws inspiration, how aspiring choreographers can break in to the industry, and more.
AURN: What were some of your early memories of dance, and how did it become part of your life as an art form?
Mayte Natalio: My first memories of dance come from my family’s parties and from the music my parents would play in the house on weekends. My parents love all kinds of music, everything from traditional merengue, Fania All Stars and salsa, Mexican pop music, Motown, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. And I loved to dance to all of it. My mom would let my brother and I fall asleep to MTV back when they still played videos. Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Michael’s videos are why I took dance lessons. I got serious about dance at LaGuardia High School. While receiving classical training, I was also simultaneously coming up as part of the hip hop generation. One minute I’d be doing ballet and Graham Technique to the most gorgeous music played by our pianists, and the next minute I’d be listening to Wu-Tang, The Fugees, Nas, Outkast, etc., on my commute home. I then went to a conservatory where I dove deeper into “high” art while at the same time being inspired by the music of the time, which meant more hip hop and electronic, alternative, dance, and house music.
My encounters in life are also my biggest inspirations. My relationships with friends, family, boyfriends (or whatever they were), and even strangers, are always present. My many nights dancing in clubs, going to music festivals, and traveling the world, influence my work a lot as well. This has led me to be drawn to artists who have lived a life off of the stage as well as on—who accept that we are all flawed, who have interests beyond dance, who have strong personalities and lead with compassion and, most importantly, who know how to have fun. Where all of these worlds cross is where I am most comfortable artistically. My choreography can be any or all of those things.
AURN: Talk about your work as associate choreographer for Porgy and Bess. What duties did you fill in that role?
MN: An associate choreographer helps execute the choreographer’s vision. In this case the choreographer was Camille A. Brown. Camille is an icon living for real! She’s also one of my closest friends, and we have worked closely for many years. We have developed shorthand, and sometimes if the artists are not understanding what she means or how she wants something done, I kind of serve as her translator. She’ll sometimes just say a rhythm, and I’ll know what that sound is supposed to look like. I review and clean a lot of the movement. If Camille is stuck with an idea, I’ll help out with suggestions and offers that are in the vein of what I know of her and of the project. Porgy and Bess has a cast of 90 and only a handful of dancers. Working with non-dancers forces you to be very creative in the way that you teach or explain movement, so that it makes sense to artists that are not as technically trained in dance. The beauty of Camille’s work, especially in Porgy and Bess, is that she needed the cast to move, look, and feel, like real people—like a community. She’s constantly driven and inspired by Black social dance, and she has an incredible way of making everyone she works with get in touch with the mover inside of them. She respected the artists and their individuality; they felt it, and they reciprocated that respect. Everyone worked so hard and beautifully for her and for her vision. We were both so impressed and proud of the end result.
AURN: Talk about your creative chemistry with Camille and what you’ve learned from her as a dancer.
MN: I’ve learned and continue to learn so much from her. We go back and forth being each other’s big sister, even though she’s technically older than me. I can sometimes be very bossy and opinionated, and she lets me live. The biggest lesson I have learned from her is bravery. I’ve seen her terrified of things in her path, and I’ve seen her overcome them and gracefully step into leadership. I’ve seen her keep her integrity and turn down major projects because they didn’t feel like her or didn’t sit well with her values.
We’ve been on TV sets, movie sets, downtown theaters, studio showings, and half-filled venues, and no matter what, she treats her artists fair. Everyone she works with leaves a better artist. She is able to get artists that are terrified of movement and choreography to open up and make the most beautiful artistic choices. I’ve learned to not pigeonhole myself into any particular style or genre from her. There are no lanes, only what feels good and what feels like the truth. One time when I started choreographing, she asked me what I wanted to do—meaning, was I done dancing. I said “No, I want to do it all!” I can say that because she is one of the main people that has shown me that all is possible.
AURN: How has your training as a dancer—particularly in high school and college—prepared you for your career as a choreographer, and is it necessary to have extensive training in order to become a successful dancer?
MN: Conservatory training is like nothing else. You dance all day long. You work with guest choreographers; you do student projects; you are forced to choreograph; you learn how to improvise and find your own movement vocabulary. For me it was essential. My composition teacher in college, Kazuko Hirabayashi, was very supportive of my choreography and wanted me to pursue it more seriously back then. But I wasn’t ready. I knew too many great choreographers, and I really respected the craft of composition. And besides, back then I just wanted to be on stage, and I told myself that I’d only start choreographing when I felt like [I] had something to say—in a way that maybe only I could say it.
As far as successful dancers needing training…there are some prodigies out there that don’t need a lot of training and can make it in the professional world. I wouldn’t recommend it though, especially these days. There are not as many full-time dance companies as there were when I graduated. Dancers these days need to be well versed in many styles in order to work consistently. So not only is training important, but having diverse training is even more important.
AURN: How long did it take you to break into the industry as a professional choreographer, and what advice do you have for people who are trying to get in?
MN: Everyone has a different timeline. It also depends on what dance industry you’re trying to break into first. I started assisting Camille and being her associate for concert and theater projects about five or six years ago. That was the beginning of being on “the other side of the table,” which is what we say in the industry when you become a creative. I immediately loved the puzzle and journey of putting a show or piece together. The dramaturgy, the research, finding throughline, the composition. I loved it and immediately saw it in my future. I was also associate for other choreographers who I now consider close collaborators.
Through it all, I was still performing a lot, and I just didn’t have time to fully develop my own ideas and create. In 2018, I was asked to create a piece for a choreographer’s showcase called BC BEAT. The piece was about the Central Park Five. I created it before the Netflix series had been announced, and I was inspired by the Ken Burns documentary. At first, I had doubts because I thought, ‘That’s a pretty heavy topic,’ but then I thought, ‘No, this is what I want to say.’ So, I created the work and it got a great response. After that, some choreographic projects started coming my way. This forced me to make a decision. In order to choreograph more, I would have to turn down several performing opportunities. I knew it wasn’t permanent, but I also knew that I needed to dedicate time to choreography if I wanted it to be a serious part of my future.
AURN: Creative industries can be hard to thrive in if the money isn’t consistent, so what are some ways dancers can leverage their knowledge of movement to keep money coming in?
MN: A lot of dancers teach dance or fitness or become trainers. It can help pay the bills when you’re in between gigs. I do feel like you should really enjoy teaching before you make it your side hustle. There are lots of cranky dance teachers out there and it’s unfortunate. I found that I don’t enjoy teaching multiple dance classes a week indefinitely. I’m a better teacher if I have a finite amount of time, if there is a clear end goal, and if I have the same people in my class—so I can build on students. I found that I’m also better with teens and older. It took me years to figure that out about myself, but it also keeps me from taking teaching jobs in which I’m eye-rolling my way through. It’s just not fair to the students. As I get older, I feel like these sentiments might change because I will change. In the meantime, I’ll teach a workshop or master class once in a while.
Very early in my career, I decided to become a personal trainer. It gave my brain a break from dance, but I was still able to be physical. And I was still in an environment where I could be creative and where I could constantly learn. I don’t have time to do it anymore, but I did love that I got to meet many interesting and (mostly) lovely individuals. Except for the early hours, it was a great way to make supplemental income.
AURN: What trends are you loving in the professional dance world right now?
MN: I’m loving the cross pollination of dance these days. Dancers that are well versed in several styles and just moving in the way that feels right for them. I’m loving the stories people are choosing to tell through movement. I’m loving the rise of social and street dancing in venues that are considered high-brow. And finally, I’m loving movie musicals and the live TV musicals trend. Let’s keep getting dancers booked!
Keep up with Mayte on Instagram @Mayte_N.