Chelsea: Have you ever had to grieve the loss of your dream even if it was your choice to change directions in life? Meaning you choose one life path and, even if you know it’s the right way, you still feel a sense of loss over the direction you didn't choose? I’ve definitely gone through that. There were a lot of tears involved, and my guest today has been there, too. But she turned her dance experience and passions into a coaching business that helps people understand those hard life transitions in a new way.
Her name is Natalie Orr, and as a dance and life coach with a background in dance anthropology, she brought a new perspective, and I always love it when people push me beyond my comfort zone. I mean, have you ever heard of dance anthropology? Natalie used her expertise to explain to me what that is and why music and dance connect us and create a true sense of community, and, importantly, how all of us as dance teachers and dancers can’t lose sight of the origins of dance and music in our cultures.
Hi, I’m Dr. Chelsea. This is the Passion for Dance podcast where we talk about how to bring mental skills like resilience, mindset, and motivation into our dancer community, and today’s show covers all of it with my guest, Natalie Orr
[Motivational Intro Music]
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and a dance team coach turned sports psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
Chelsea: Hi, Natalie! Welcome to the show. Thanks for being here!
Natalie: Thank you so much for having me! I’m so honored that you accepted me to come on your show. I’m a big fan, and I’m super excited to speak to your audience ‘cause I feel like they're kind of my audience, too, and I love this group of people. Dance teachers and dance educators are shifting humanity, so I’m excited! [Laughs]
Chelsea: Aww, I love that! That’s a bold statement, and I totally agree, actually. That’s wonderful. So, will you share a little bit about yourself? Tell my audience about you and your dance journey.
Natalie’s Dance Journey – 2:26
Natalie: Yes, okay, so mine is really higgledy-piggledy and random and around the corners and all that kind of thing. I didn't do a straight down the line thing. So, very long story short, I started as a little girl with ballet, the kind of typical story. I loved it. Then, I stopped ballet when I was nine because I moved from Scotland to England, and during that process I didn't find a dance teacher that I liked. I was very spoiled with my first dance teacher. She was amazing, and when I moved, I was like, “I’m not feeling this new thing.”
So, I ended up doing more contemporary kind of stuff at school. In the UK, you can actually study dance at school. So, I did DCSC and aliwal dance which is super fun, and I also played the cello, and I also studied music. So, those two things for me were always very related and, to me, kind of made a lot of sense to go together.
When it came to uni, I wanted to study dance and music. I was like that makes perfect sense. I don't even know now. Maybe it’s changed, but at that point when I applied (so this was like 2005) you couldn't study both, so I had to choose at that point. You couldn't do joint honors.
Chelsea: Wow, okay.
Natalie: Yeah, and I was like, “That’s weird ‘cause you can study French and dance, but you can't do dance and music?” Anyway…
Chelsea: Oh, that does seem strange. Those should go together.
Natalie: It’s strange, right?
Natalie: I thought the same! But no. So, you kind of have to choose. So, in the end, I chose dance, and so, my degree’s in dance. That’s contemporary. There was no ballet involved in my degree or anything, and then while I was at uni, I got really into the Latin stuff. So, I started dancing salsa and Brazilian samba, reggaeton, more urban Latin styles. I got super into that. I was like, “This is awesome! I love that.”
Unfortunately, during the process of my degree — I really enjoyed my degree, and I learned a lot, but I fell a little bit out of love with contemporary dance from all of the over-analysis of it, I think. From my side it was that, and I just kind of was like, ah, dance was the thing that was supposed to make me feel really good and have fun and feel alive in my body. I still enjoyed contemporary, but there was a shift in me.
So, out of uni, everyone expected, “Okay, so, she’s got a dance degree.” [Laughs] I went and auditioned for a Latin dance company. [Laughs]
Natalie: And so, I started working with them dancing around different parts of the UK and London doing samba shows, different Latin shows, and then I was also teaching the Latin styles as well. So, that’s what I actually did out of uni for a few years.
Natalie: Then, eventually, I was craving to come back to academia. For me, it’s really difficult to just do one thing. I realized this is why I was never cut out to be a professional high-level dancer in one style because I just can't commit. I have commitment issues in dance. [Laughs]
Chelsea: [Laughs] Yes.
Natalie: So, I was really craving getting back to the academic side because I love that, too. I’m really passionate about, not just the people who have, quote unquote, “talent” for dance, but understanding dance on a more human level.
Natalie: I was always really drawn to that. So, I went, and I did my master’s degree in dance anthropology (anthropology being the study of human beings, and then focus on dance) at Roehampton University which is in London, and that really was a life-changer for me, that master’s degree. It’s really when I started to be able to see dance in a whole new way because you study the dances from all different cultures, from all different times. My dissertation was on the evolution of music and dance so why on earth do humans dance and make music, like, why do we do that, how did we get the ability to do that, and kind of look at it from this dance as a behavior rather than dance as an art form, and it’s always both, but there was something more fundamental there for me which is fascinating.
So, after I finished my master’s, I was still quite young at this point. I was only 23, I think. My teachers were like, “Right, okay, so, PhD!” I was like, “No, I feel called to go back into the actual practical dance world.” So, I left academia again. I was like, “See ya!” Then, I wanted to teach.
So, I’ve left a few things out though, here. In the middle of all that, I moved to Spain, and when I first moved to Spain, I was teaching English just ‘cause that’s a way to kind of get in here before you speak the language. I didn't speak Spanish.
Natalie: I learned it here. But then as soon as I’d kind of learned Spanish here, I worked for another company for a bit and then I set up my own dance classes. And so, also, somewhere in that story, I started ballet again. So, this is when I was 26. I started ballet again, and I got completely hooked, and I was like, “I’ve been missing this!” There’s something so fun about ballet – the aesthetics of it, the easy way of measuring your progress in it. I have some history of perfectionism and other shadows that I have to work through, and a lot of them came out in ballet.
So, I kind of got really hooked to it and ended up studying for a year in the conservatory in Madrid. So, I went through that kind of pre-professional training here, but, eventually, was like, again, I don't want to just be on stage. This isn't my dream. It’s an amazing dream for so many people, and I kind of, at some point, was like, “Am I a failure for not wanting that?”
Natalie: But, eventually, I kind of gave myself permission to be like that was never really in the cards for me. When I look back at my journey, I’m like, yeah, that’s really obvious, Natalie. You were never able to just kind of focus on one very specific thing, but it was really formative training. I really enjoyed it. It was a wonderful experience, and the thing that it gave me was learning ballet again as an adult and going through that process having already been a dance teacher. It was fascinating to see what my body could do and how it could transform and how it could change at that age and what I was able to achieve which was beyond what I actually thought when I actually first started. I was like, wow, that’s so cool! The human body is amazing.
Natalie: But then, of course, that all sounds really cool, and then there are other things that go with it. I had a few injuries because of forcing my turnout a little bit too much a little bit too quickly. Anyway, again, I said I was gonna keep this short. Sorry, it’s been very long.
Eventually, I come, and I start my own classes and workshops for adult ballet dancers. I decide I’m gonna teach ballet in a slightly different way, like in a very kind of student-empowered way, slightly switching up the hierarchy that’s usually there in a ballet class between teacher and students. I ran an adult ballet holiday, so people would come from other parts of the world, and they’d come to Madrid. We’d all get together. We’d dance ballet. We’d learn a variation, and we’d hang out. It was super fun.
Chelsea: I love that. That sounds amazing.
Natalie: It was so fun. So fun. The final little part of my story is that around five years ago I started learning about coaching. I originally got into it through wanting to learn about how to be a better entrepreneur, because that was something that, as a dance teacher, you just kind of end up being an entrepreneur accidentally, and then I was like, “Oh, maybe I should learn how to do this better.” [Laughs]
Chelsea: Sure. Yeah.
Natalie: So, then, I kind of was like, “Let me figure this out.” I learned a bit about business coaching and then found my way into life coaching, and that really changed everything for me, when I was able to let go of the perfectionism, when I was able to let go of the self-criticism, when I was able to give myself permission to be who I actually am and do things in the way that I want to do them. And so, that was a really beautiful journey that led me, then, into training to be a coach and then starting to coach dance teachers and also others, mainly women, who struggle with perfectionism and those kinds of things and are just ready to blossom and bloom into who they always were and just own it.
Chelsea: Oh, thank you! I love that it’s not a straight line, as you said, and I think there is pressure to do it a certain way, to have that straight line. But I want to dig in a little bit when you said you had that sense of failure when you decided not to go down the path the right way. Maybe that was in academia or, again, in should you go pro and then deciding that’s not what you want. I had a similar journey of having this pressure of what I felt like I was supposed to do and then doing something different.
So, either speaking a little bit to your own journey or maybe what might be helpful for people to hear is what helped you through that to let go of that sense of failure to embrace your new journey?
Embracing the New Journey – 11:35
Natalie: Yeah, I had to grieve. I wish there was something that was just like a flick, a switch, a moment of just releasing everything, but, in all honesty, it was a little process of grieving the future version of me that I thought should exist and just embracing the one that was here and what she actually wanted.
Chelsea: Yeah. Right.
Natalie: What that looked like for me on just a very practical level was after I’d finished at the conservatory and I was in that transition to going back to teaching dance and being like, yeah, I’m never gonna be a ballet dancer, and that’s absolutely fine. You know, I think it was like a little chip on my shoulder from when I was so young (that nine-year-old). Really, the adult me knew, no, I love having more flexibility in my schedule. I love being able to teach dancers, but what I had to do was — this is gonna sound so silly — I literally watched Swan Lake, and I just cried all the way through it.
Natalie: And that was my grieving, and once it was finished, I was like, “Okay, that was super sad, but thank you, Svetlana and Roberto, for giving me that moment to just get it all out.” Then I was like, “Okay, well, other people are doing this beautiful work of sharing dance in that specific way. It doesn't have to be me.” That was when I realized the part that was my ego that was like, “Oh, I want it to be me 'cause then I’m the one that’s done all this, and people are like, ‘Oh, my god, you're a professional ballet dancer!’” which is so awesome, but at the same time, that didn't have to be me. People are doing that really, really beautifully. So, then the question is like me, who I am, the skills and talents that I have, the gifts I have that might not be as well recognized on certain levels of the dance institutions but that I know have value, how do I step into those and give myself permission? I honestly think it was just a process of taking one step after another.
One of my favorite quotes is a Marie Forleo quote. She’s a business coach. She says, “Clarity comes from engagement not thought.”
Natalie: And so, I really was just like, “Okay, well, let me just try this then! Let me not try and think my way into exactly what type of dance teacher should I be or what should I be doing next. Let me just go out and try it. Let me set up a class. Let me hire a studio. Let me tell people about it and see what happens and see how I want to continue on the journey.”
Chelsea: Oh, I love that.
Natalie: It was messy.
Chelsea: It is messy, but I think that’s the reality is it should be messy. I like that you align it with grief because I think when we are grieving a future version of us, that is very real to let go of, and I think we struggle with that in our teens and twenties to decide that that’s okay to let go of in order to be (like you said) our best versions.
Natalie: Can I add something?
Chelsea: Please jump in!
Natalie: About this grief part, though, it’s so tempting to want to have it all, and I think as dancers and dance teachers, at least the people that I know, we’re very good at getting good at things.
Natalie: It’s almost like a talent, getting really good at things quickly and learning things very quickly. All the dance instructors I know are like that, and so, it’s almost sometimes like an outside pressure from other people who see us that they're like, “But you're really good at this, and you, therefore, should do this thing,” and all of a sudden, you from the inside are like, “Oh, wow, but there are so many trajectories that I could go and be successful at, and now I have to choose one, and that means that I’m a failure at all the others,” and it’s just reframing that. It’s like, no, those aren't failures. There’s one life. I have to make trade-offs, basically. That is only one thing.
Natalie: Just to give another weird comparison to this, I also used to sometimes feel like that in my physical appearance. I’m sure there are other dancers that maybe can relate to this, but I also had this thing of, “I wish I could also be blonde,” and when I danced as a samba dancer I was like, “I wish I could also be really curvy,” and when I danced in different things I was like, “I wish I could be this version of a woman and that version of a woman and that version of a woman.” It was kind of a similar thing in the dance world where I was like could I not just also be a dancer but also a teacher at the same time and also learn about this academic thing and then dance also professionally. I was like, “No, Natalie. You can't. You must choose,” and when you choose, the grieving process of just acknowledging, yeah, I’m letting go of those other ones, and that’s okay. I’m here to live one life and enjoy it, but it’s hard. It’s hard.
Chelsea: Oh, it is so hard, but I appreciate that comparison. I think you're right. It’s that comparison trap that so many of us are in, too, is we want what other people have and being able to accept that it may not be right for us but then, also, that doesn't mean it’s a failure if you are intentionally choosing a different path, and that’s beautiful reframe.
Taking the First Step of Action – 16:49
The other piece of what you said before that I wanted to touch on was your Marie Forleo quote about action because I think that’s one of the best ways to get out of this trap is, well, I don't know if I’m going to like teaching. I didn't go into graduate school thinking I was gonna be a professor. That was not the plan, but I got in there, and I was like, “I might like it. I might not. I don't know, and let’s just take action.” I taught my first class and was like, “Oh, yep.” Click, there it is. Then it becomes easier to let go of the other paths because you found that piece. I think taking action is the scary part, right?
Chelsea: It’s a lot easier to just sit in my little hole and just think about what I might want to do. So, I don't know if you have any other things you want to add on about getting out of the “I just want to sit and think about this” and being brave enough to take that first step of action.
Natalie: Yeah, for me, this is something that I help, I would say, probably every client with, and the reason I’m good at helping them with that is because I had to help myself with this first [Laughs] many times over.
Natalie: For a lot of us, it stems, partly, from perfectionism I think, of just coming to an understanding that life does not work how it works in the ballet studio. In the ballet studio, there are very certain rules. There’s a right and wrong way to do everything. There’s someone that’s gonna tell you exactly what you need to do, and all you need to do is follow those steps to the tee, and you're gonna get a gold star. That is not how life works, and yet we want to put that model onto life, and instead life is a little bit messy, and you have to try things out, and some people are gonna be like, “You're doing the right thing,” and some people are gonna be like, “You're doing the wrong thing.” If you're only ever trying to avoid criticism or people not understanding what you're doing or any of those things, you're gonna be trapped in the box of, “I need to think my way out of this,” because you're not giving yourself permission to take imperfect action, and then you are stuck. I’ve been there many times. You are stuck until you just take the brave decision, and this takes courage.
There’s also no way of getting around the discomfort of doing it. Again, we want to think ourselves out of it like, “How can I prepare more? How can I watch another interview? How can I listen to another podcast? How can I gain that next bit of knowledge that’s gonna allow me to do this without any discomfort or getting something wrong?” But so many times in life, especially if you want to do something that’s a little bit your own or a little bit out of the box, you just have to deal with the physical sensation of discomfort, of someone not understanding what I’m doing or getting it wrong. Maybe no one else even sees it, but maybe I see that I made a mistake, and just being able to deal with that. The amazing thing is, is that dancers are so good at dealing with physical discomfort. We’re super trained in that.
Natalie: And then all we have to do is switch over and understand that emotional discomfort feels very similar. It’s also a body sensation, so you guys, we know how to do this. It’s just shifting it. Because when it’s emotional, it doesn't feel like we’re in control of it, right? When it’s physical and we’re in the dance studio we’re like, “My leg’s up here, and it’s shaking, but I know if I really have to, I can take it down at any moment,” and, somehow, with the emotional stuff, taking action on something scary or being courageous or doing something different, that feels a little more out of control, but it’s not. There are ways that we can deal with those emotional sensations as well, and so, that’s why I also work with embodiment in coaching ‘cause I like to bring those two parts together.
Chelsea: Absolutely. I love that, and I started recently thinking about how it’s not about getting out of your comfort zone but about expanding your comfort zone.
Chelsea: And I think you can only do that if you take action and go for it.
Chelsea: So, I love that thought. I want to shift a little bit because I want to get into the anthropology piece of your work because I think, as you were talking about the origins of dance and music, so many of us, unless you have that specific education, don't know it at all. We’re just living in the current iteration of what it is.
Natalie: Yeah, of course.
Chelsea: So, will you, first, maybe clarify how you are defining dance as we’re talking about it in this way and then share about dance and music as a part of community?
Natalie’s Definition of Dance – 21:14
Natalie: Yes, absolutely. So, the way that I personally define dance is intentional, rhythmic movement. So, that is a very wide definition that is not that useful to people who are doing specific research in ballet, for example, because it’s too broad. It’s too broad a scope, but this definition is really useful for me because it’s actually the origins of why we can dance. If we weren't able to move our body rhythmically, we wouldn't be able to dance, and people forget that because they think dance is about flexibility or it’s about strength or it’s about movement range. It is, at some level, but ultimately, it’s about rhythm. If you can't move rhythmically, then you can't dance in time with other people. This is actually the core, the fundamental ability of people to dance.
Natalie: What I love about that is that definition is also music because to play an instrument or to sing — I know that singing you can't really see the parts of the body that are moving rhythmically, but it’s the voice, right?
Natalie: It’s the larynx, etcetera, and if you're, obviously, drumming, that’s a little bit more of an obvious one. Then, there are these beautiful examples of where there’s both. So, flamenco or tap is a great example of where there’s the rhythm that you can hit and the rhythm that you can see simultaneously, and you only have to look at children to understand how true this is and how deep it is in our anatomy and our biology and our psychology. If there’s music on, the kids will start bobbing along. They’ll, like, do-do-do.
Natalie: So, this innate ability to, what we call, is entrain with the rhythm (which is to join in with it, to become synchronized with the rhythm) is the fundamentals of music and dance. In a lot of cultures, especially historically, they actually only had one word for both of those things because they always went together. If you think about in a ritual type of space, there would always have been music and dance together, and so, that was all part of the same thing.
Then, of course, we come more into modern times, and there’s been this big separation between music and dance, and that is a place, especially in research and things, for looking at them individually. I feel like my little part to play in the dance world is just to remind people to bring all that together again and to take a more bigger holistic look. We need to go deep and specific but then once all that knowledge has been gained, I love the idea of bringing it all back together and reconnecting with, “Hey, how can dance research and music research come together and explore, not necessarily in a research place, but in the dance studios. How can we, again, bring live music into the space with live dance?”
Dance and Music as Part of Community – 24:14
It’s so tempting now, because we live in a technological world, to also kind of just forget the importance of why do we put music on when we’re feeling lonely. It’s not only because it makes us feel good and it releases all these things, but why does it do that because if you were listening to music, that always meant that you were with another human being until the last few hundred years when we had sound recording, but before that, it always meant that there was another human being with you. And so, I think, on a deep level of the body, music makes us know and feel that we’re not alone. But a part of the beauty of that is experiencing it in person, and I think it’s amazing we’ve had dance classes online. People have been able to improve their technique at home. What a miracle all this technology has been, but I’m still a really big proponent of remembering the origins of dance and music, and that was people coming together. So, this comes into the community part. Participating in dance and music are some of the best ways for people to feel a sense of belonging and this deeper connection which we’re really craving right now.
So, there are a lot of divisions in the world, and a lot of these divisions are caused from disagreement on psychological concepts or ethical ideas. So, it’s a lot on kind of this — the people can't see me. I’m doing this on the head realm and moving my hands around my head. We need to also have the opportunities to come together on a body level, and dance and music are literally the best ways to do that.
I just invite people to think of if you’ve been in a dance class with someone, especially if you do partner dances or something like that, that it’s an opportunity to connect with people, not only on a cognitive level, but on a body level. There are lots of ways that that happens rhythmically.
Chelsea: Thinking about music in that way is really powerful to me because I think you're right. I’m familiar with that experience of music connecting to my emotions and connecting, whether it’s cathartic or whether it’s connecting me to when we think of romantic couples that have a song or a song comes on that makes me think of my best friend, and we’re very connected to that, but I didn't think about it from a historical sense of you were always with someone. That makes so much sense, and I take the psychology evolution piece to it, but that’s how our brain has made that connection, and that’s so beautiful. I think you're right, as dance teachers, we maybe are losing sight of some of the power of what music can do for us to bring us together.
Natalie: Yeah, it’s so powerful. This idea of sharing a rhythm, as well — this beautiful research that’s been done — I’ll just share one study because it’s one of my favorites — where, not only community, but also cooperation increases when we dance or make music together. So, one of the studies that they did was in a school (so, this was with children), and they had a storytelling experience, and then they had a musical experience. And in both cases, the children were more cooperative after, but in the musical experience, it was even higher.
And so, I just love this example because I think, on a humanity level, where we’re at right now there’s kind of a big focus on we all need shared stories, and we’re living in global times where things are complicated, right? But, at the same time, as well as shared stories, even more so, we need shared movement experiences. And so, that is what music and dance gives us.
I kind of sometimes forget that when we were at school, probably, most of our friends would listen to some of the same songs so they’d know the same songs because you just listened to what was on the radio. Everyone just had the Spice Girls album or whatever it was.
Chelsea: Mm-hmm. [Laughs]
Natalie: And there was also that shared thing of you all know the words to the same songs, and there’s that feeling of belonging, also, in that. Now, there’s the tradeoff between you have access to any music that’s ever been recorded at your fingertips on the internet, which is beautiful and incredible and amazing, but then, at the same time, we don't share in those rhythms as much anymore.
Chelsea: Yeah. Oh, super interesting. I don't want to leave without going practical because I always try to help my teachers say, “Okay, if you're inspired by this conversion, if something’s interesting, what do we go do?” So, any advice on a practical thing a dance educator can go do when they're with their dancers?
Natalie’s Practical Advice for Dance Educators – 28:57
Natalie: Yes, so, one of the beautiful things about dance and music is that they bring us into our body but, as teachers, we have a tendency (because we’ve been trained this way) to take people out of their body and into their mind, and then you can't actually access these benefits of that feeling of community in the class or that beautiful feeling of dancing together or sharing in the rhythm of the music because you're so analyzing, “Is my movement correct? Does this look good? Is this exactly what I have to be doing,” or, even worse, you're like, “That girl’s competition. How high is her leg,” or the fear of if I do something wrong, I’m gonna be shouted at or whatever.
So, I just encourage — and no one has to do everything in the same way, but I think there is a place for reminding our dancers, and even just people in our life, and there are a lot of things that we can access through the body. So, not constantly giving vocal corrections or forcing them to be in that analytical state but giving them a chance to, “You know what, this time that we’re doing this exercise or whatever, just feel it. Just be in the body. Don't worry. I promise I’m not gonna correct you.”
That’s the other thing. You can't tell people, “Be in your body! Don’t worry. Don’t analyze,” and then shout at them, “That was wrong! That was wrong!”
Chelsea: [Laughs] Right.
Natalie: Just giving people space to come back into their bodies. That’s one thing more practical for the dance teachers.
Chelsea: I like that.
Natalie: A lot of dance teachers are already doing this which is wonderful, but I think on just a more general, broad, society level, how can you just dance more with people who are not dancers because, ultimately, we’re all dancers. I’ve just explained how all human beings have this fundamental ability to move rhythmically, so dance with your nieces and nephews. Dance at the wedding. Encourage people who feel, now, that they're not allowed to dance because, unfortunately, there has been a separation between people who can dance and people who can't dance, and just be the dancer that encourages the non-dancers that they're allowed to dance. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. [Laughs]
Chelsea: I do too. What a wonderful message. I so appreciate that. Thank you so much, Natalie. Will you share how people can find you and your work?
Natalie: Yes! So, my favorite place is Instagram, actually, just because I like to voice note people. So @nataliedanza is my Instagram handle, and then I’m also on YouTube. My real name’s Natalie Orr. People used to think my second name was Danza, and I was like, “That would be so cool, but no!” [Laughs]
Natalie: My second name is Orr. So, yeah, YouTube and Instagram are the best places for people to find me. I work with dance teachers who want to kind of do things in their own way, to break out of the restrictions of how things only should be done and who want to kind of overcome perfectionism and enjoy the dance journey because, ultimately, we all got into this because we love dance. That’s why we all got into it, and so, I love being able to bring people back to the reconnection of that, and part of that comes from being in your body and giving yourself permission to be you.
Chelsea: Oh, wonderful. I love conversations when I have my own personal ahas. Those are so fun, and I love bringing in other perspectives that I’m not used to, and you definitely did that for me today, so thank you for sharing and being here with me.
Natalie: My pleasure.
Chelsea: It was really lovely. Thank you!
Natalie: Thank you so much!
[Motivational Outro Music]