Meet these 2 native New Mexico dancers who won accolades as 'changemakers' - Albuquerque Journal

Meet these 2 native New Mexico dancers who won accolades as ‘changemakers’

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.”

Home » ABQnews Seeker » Meet these 2 native New Mexico dancers who won accolades as ‘changemakers’

Insert Question Legislature form in Legis only stories

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email

taboola desktop

ABQjournal can get you answers in all pages


Questions about the Legislature?
Albuquerque Journal can get you answers
Email addresses are used solely for verification and to speed the verification process for repeat questioners.
Cirque Italia brings its maritime-themed show to Albuquerque
ABQnews Seeker
Cirque Italia's latest adventure is called ... Cirque Italia's latest adventure is called "Water Circus" and will start a two week stand in Albuquerque beginning Thursday, March 30, at Cottonwood Mall.
Whimsical fountain at botanic garden may be removed
ABQnews Seeker
Multi-colored fountain, located prominently near the ... Multi-colored fountain, located prominently near the entrance to the Botanic Garden, has physically deteriorated to the point where it is now being considered for ...
Alec Baldwin’s attorneys claim email sent by ex-prosecutor indicates ...
ABQnews Seeker
Alec Baldwin's attorneys criticize a former ... Alec Baldwin's attorneys criticize a former special prosecutor in the "Rust" movie shooting case, suggesting she used the case to advance her political career.
Gateway Center construction hits asbestos snag
ABQnews Seeker
City of Albuquerque says it will ... City of Albuquerque says it will take longer to finish the long-awaited homeless shelter in the old Lovelace hospital
Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly 'put others first'
ABQnews Seeker
Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly ... Former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly died Wednesday after a long illness, according to a family spokesman. He was 75.
Albuquerque Starbucks workers join nationwide strike
ABQnews Seeker
Citing a lack of employees and ... Citing a lack of employees and feeling overworked — with a yet-to-begin bargaining process with their corporate bosses — employees at the Starbucks on ...
Workplace-safety sanction finalized in Alec Baldwin shooting
ABQnews Seeker
No one is objecting to a ... No one is objecting to a settlement agreement to resolve allegations of workplace safety violations in the 2021 shooting death of a cinematographer by ...
Bernalillo County expands 'living room’ hours
ABQnews Seeker
The living room center is the ... The living room center is the latest addition to Bernalillo County’s CARE Campus.
Man sentenced to 6 years in 2021 crash-turned-fatal shooting ...
ABQnews Seeker
Deputies two years ago found the ... Deputies two years ago found the body of Miguel Gonzalez-Munoz in the wreckage of his car in Southwest Albuquerque.