Dancing across the world: senior Natalie Larsen’s post-graduation plans take her to Australia

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Pete Ferretti

As a junior, senior Natalie Larsen decided to try the poms team. Joining the team gave her the opportunity to perform more often. “[My dancing] hasn’t been anything performance based for a while since poms, which I think is fine,” Larsen said. “I miss the vindication of performing, but honestly, I don’t miss performing. It’s that respect as a dancer that I miss.”

By Zoe DeYoung, Parkway West High School

She knew her plan. Senior Natalie Larsen would go to a four-year university straight out of high school; she would use her childhood experiences from mission trips with her family to study social work. This is how she planned to make a difference.

“It wasn’t until the very end of last year that I was wondering, ‘do I really want to do this?’,” Larsen said. “I was taking Psychology, and I didn’t love the class. I think I had a romanticized view of what social work looks like. It takes so many degrees, so much school and even when you’re working, there are so many people you have to work with and check with. I couldn’t make as much of a difference as I want to make. I wanted the feeling of changing someone’s life everyday; I wanted to come home and feel spiritually satisfied.”

These questions, along with the gap year her sister was taking at the time, led Larsen to look at various gap-year programs. Despite her constant search, she found it difficult to find a program that fit her requirements. Larsen wanted a program that would allow her to combine her two passions: mission work and dance.

“I wanted [the programs] to be dance-related of some kind,” Larsen said. “I was like, ‘I know I’m into dance, that’s something I’ve tried and know I like it, so I’m going to look into it and see what happens.’ I couldn’t find anything that I wanted because a lot of it was very technique based with the end goal of being a professional dancer. That’s not really what I wanted. I wanted to do something with it [service-related].”

I wanted the feeling of changing someone’s life everyday; I wanted to come home and feel spiritually satisfied,”

— senior Natalie Larsen

In sixth grade, Larsen joined the cheer team. Throughout her time in the sport, her mindset became increasingly body-image focused. After quitting the team in seventh grade at her mother’s request, Larsen was left with extra time after school.

“I started watching the show ‘Dance Moms’ with all the extra time I had because I wasn’t at cheer practice,” Larsen said. “I loved the dancing. I thought it was so pretty. I decided that I was going to learn some of the dances from the show.”

Larsen loved the dance “Cry” performed by dancer Maddie Zeigler. In eighth grade, she decided to teach herself the dance.

“I cleared out my entire basement. I was like, ‘I feel this song, and I’m in a really hard place right now, and she looks so pretty doing it, so I really want to express myself this way,’’ Larsen said. “I watched the dance over and over again and took it block-by-block. I learned it, and I felt good about it even though I wasn’t flexible and couldn’t turn. Then, I started getting organized with learning it once I realized that I loved it.”

With time, Larsen’s love for dancing grew. The most attractive part was her newfound ability to express herself.

“It was so much more emotive to me than cheerleading; I was actually showing people who I was,” Larsen said. “Also, because I was teaching myself at the beginning, it wasn’t at all body image [focused]; it was purely for the art itself, and that was just what I needed. I’m very influenced by others opinions. It felt more personal to me, and there was no one else to compare myself to. It was just me and dance.”

Because I was teaching myself at the beginning, it wasn’t at all body image [focused]; it was purely for the art itself, and that was just what I needed.”

— senior Natalie Larsen

Larsen decided it was time to learn from a professional and began taking classes at a dance studio.

“I was only taking one class a week,” Larsen said. “Contemporary has always been my favorite, but because I could only take one class a week, [I chose] a jazz class because I wanted something that included as many styles as possible. The girls in my class were much more diverse. There were different body types and personalities than I had experienced in cheerleading, [and] it felt more accepting of other people. I didn’t feel those same pressures, and it felt like we had similar motivations; we all had the same goal. It was a pretty easy transition for me [because] I wanted it so bad. When I started cheerleading, I was doing it more for the middle school experience, whereas with dance, I wanted it. I had practiced for it, and I knew it was something I liked.”

Larsen sought a missional gap-year program that would allow her to dance. Her parents run an organization called Next Ministries, which focuses on helping kids of missionary families. This organization is what gave Larsen the opportunity to travel and serve in a variety of places.

“I brought the problem up to my dad, and he told me about this organization called YWAM, which stands for Youth With A Mission,” Larsen said. “There was someone in my church who was affiliated with YWAM, and he had heard about it from her.”

After further research, Larsen found out that YWAM had a focus specifically in dance in Brisbane, Australia.

Courtesy of Natalie Larsen
At a celebration for her 16th birthday in Honduras, Larsen feeds a child.

“I wanted to go somewhere in Australia because that was where my dad grew up. I’ve never been [there] before, but because of all the traveling my family has done, I know people there; I know people who I could stay with if there was an emergency, so it feels like a safe space for me.”

Starting in October, Larsen will be spending the first 10 weeks of her program at a Discipleship Training School  (DTS). She will use this time to learn from lectures and practical training in the community. When her 10 weeks are up, she will begin the process of starting her own program in the Brisbane community, with hopes of spreading the Christian faith through dance.

“With starting a program, so much depends on what I see when I’m there and what I learn during those first 10 weeks,” Larsen said. “For instance, there have been programs started by YWAM in orphanages. The dancers get together and go to an orphanage to begin a program where they teach the orphans how to dance and telling them about Jesus while building relationships with them. It could be anything. You find a need, and you use dance in that need. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with it, but it’s up to how it looks. Depending on the success of the program that I start, I might just stay and see how far it will go.”

Reactions to Larsen’s post-graduation plans have varied, and she has kept the news quiet.

“It’s obvious that everyone assumes everyone is going to college right away, so when I tell them they’re like, ‘oh, you’re going to Australia? By yourself?’,” Larsen said. “I have been more careful in who I’ve told. I don’t want to be that poster child who is going to Australia and throwing her life away to serve. This is just the only thing I want to do. I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I’m sure when the time gets nearer, when I finish the process and when it’s all set in stone, I will start telling people about it and getting more excited and preparing. Since this is a six-month program where I might actually stay, this is what I want my life to look like.”

Unlike her family’s mission trips where they would visit for two or three weeks at a time, there is a possibility that Larsen will stay for good.

“I’m not doing this for six months and then going back to the States and going to college. I’m doing this to start something big,” Larsen said. “I’m doing this to make change, and I want to stay around to see it if that’s God’s will. If it were my decision, I wouldn’t come back to the States. This is really what I think my calling is, and calling has nothing to do with praise. It has to do with humbly submitting to God’s word, and that is what I think I’m doing in going to Australia. When the program is over, it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be a lot more of me being independent and making tough decisions, but I feel ready to do that, praise or no praise.”

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on January 7, 2020.