Natalie Benally gives direction to a young dancer standing opposite her. (Courtesy of Ernie Zahn)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

When Natalie Benally was growing up on the Navajo Nation, she watched Michael Jackson popping and moonwalking on MTV.

bright spotShe could find no one around who could teach her traditional dancing.

So, she invented her own Indigenous stew of styles, combining hip-hop, popping and house forms with Native culture.

Dance/USA, the national service organization for dance, recently awarded the Albuquerque artist a $30,167 fellowship for sustained practices in art for social change. Champion Ohkay Owingeh hoop dancer ShanDien Sonwai LaRance (Hopi, Tewa, Navajo and Assiniboine), who toured as a principal dancer with Cirque du Soleil, also received a fellowship. The New Mexico women were two of 30 dance- and movement-based artists to receive the grants with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Benally and LaRance advanced through a multi-phased, seven-month review process that included 27 peer readers and 10 panelists. They were selected from 413 initial applicants from across the U.S.

ShanDien Sonwai LaRance poses in her Native American Hoop Dance regalia, holding with both hands five white hoops in a geometric flower/basket shape. (Courtesy of Wes Cunningham/One Trip Media)

“Natalie Benally and ShanDien Sonwai LaRance are both brilliant changemakers who demonstrate significant alignment to these values in their work. Dance/USA is thrilled to support them among our 2022 Artist Fellows,” said Haowen Wang, director of re-granting for Dance/USA.

“I started out teaching myself,” Benally said. “There was no place to go.”

Her approach detours from the pow-wow image of elaborate regalia, jingle dresses and braids.

“I do Indigenous contemporary,” Benally said. “I gravitated more to contemporary and modern because I liked the movement.”

She uses whatever movements she needs to tell a story.

“I don’t ever want to waste movement,” she said. “Every movement has to have meaning and intention.”

Benally has directed and choreographed numerous theater productions; she has also moved into film and TV. She is the co-founder/creative director of Tse’Nato, a mixed-media storytelling company that amplifies Indigenous voices and representation.

Recently, she performed the lead voiceover as Dory in the 2016 Navajo-dubbed version of “Finding Nemo.” She also played a dispatcher in the AMC series “Dark Winds,” now shooting its second series in New Mexico.

She also plays a role in the new Fox series “Accused,” slated to begin airing Jan. 22, 2023.

“It’s an anthology series,” Benally said. “Each episode features a different story and a different cast.”

Her segment, centering around four Native activists trying to shut down uranium mines, appears in the seventh episode.

Filmed in Toronto, it was a part that resonated close to home. Both her father and her grandfather worked for uranium companies and suffered health issues from unknowingly hauling back contaminated water.

“It was a big honor to bring that to the show,” she said.

The award money will fund another passion project, a filmed series about Indigenous dancers that she calls “Azhish: Stories in Motion.”

She highlights the ballerina Than Povi Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo in the first of the series, “Sèng Wha” (“Be Strong,”) available on Vimeo. PBS also selected it for its Native Lens series.

Benally is in preproduction for her second film of the series, a piece about Navajo dancer Nicole Sam, who lives in Thoreau.

“I found her on TikTok,” she said. “I thought, ‘wow, this girl can move.’ ”

Sam filmed herself dancing to the Lizzo song “About Damn Time.”

“She obviously has it, because it just shows in her face,” Benally said.

She’s also creating a short film called “Mother’s Day” that is funded by the New Mexico Film Office.

Benally applied for the fellowship last December. She learned she was a winner via email.

“I can never see myself not dancing at all,” she said. “I’ve been dancing ever since I can remember.”