If you’re not convinced big things can come in small packages, then you haven’t met Natalie Tursi. At five feet tall, this Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago second-company member has impeccable control over her every movement, but at the same time, an explosiveness that far surpasses her tiny frame.
“Natalie is a spitfire, both as a dancer and person,” says Jon Lehrer, former GJDC associate director. “[She is] opinionated, strong, confident and approachable. She does not let her petite frame dictate her personality.”
That commanding quality stood out to Lehrer and GJDC artistic director Nan Giordano when they met Natalie at an audition in January 2006.
Hired into Giordano II during the end of her senior year in college (at her first professional audition ever!), Natalie has followed the path that every dancer hopes to duplicate: Work hard and take every opportunity that comes your way, and it will pay off. DS dished with this Queens-born 24-year-old about her training, making a living and what it means to work in a history-steeped company that lost its founder, the legendary jazz master Gus Giordano, earlier this year.
In the Beginning
During her past two seasons with Giordano II—also called G2—Natalie has performed, learned company rep as an understudy, and even took the stage when a main company member became injured. But rewind two decades and you’d find Natalie taking her first ballet-tap combo class as a 3-year-old at The Landrum School of Dance in Whitestone, NY. Her teacher Annette Vallone invited her to join the school’s competition company in seventh grade. “It was then that I got bit by the dance bug,” Natalie says. As if an active competing schedule and required classes in ballet, jazz, tap and acro didn’t keep her busy enough, Natalie was constantly chasing more opportunities to dance. In high school she competed on dance and gymnastics teams, took on dance roles in school musicals and spent her summers as a work-study student at NYC’s Steps on Broadway, taking as many classes as she could fit in. “At that point, I was [working on] picking up combinations quickly and exposing myself to as many styles as I could,” she says.
After watching several friends head off to college to major in dance, Natalie knew that was the route for her too. With her heart set on studying in NYC, she landed at Marymount Manhattan College. Midway through her first semester, though, she had the sinking feeling that the program just wasn’t right for her. “It wasn’t a ‘giving up’ thing, or ‘Ooh, I made a mistake, I’m a failure.’ It’s hard to pick a college, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you get there,” she says. “So while it was scary to make the phone call and say, ‘Mom, I don’t think I want to go here anymore,’ that’s what I did.”
She took a second look at the modern and ballet-focused BA program at Hofstra University, her runner-up pick that she had initially dismissed for being in further-from-the-city Long Island, NY, and started her spring semester there. “She was a bright light from the beginning of her days at Hofstra to the day she graduated,” says Lance Westergard, director of dance. “I’ve taught for 30 years, and there are only a handful of dancers that are born to do it. Natalie is one of them. There’s no denying that.”
What charmed Natalie about Hofstra’s program was how many activities she could get involved in. “For someone like me who is like, ‘How many opportunities can you give me? I’ll take them all!’ it ended up being the best decision ever,” she says. While all dance majors have a required core curriculum, upperclassmen can pop in and out of additional classes as they like. In addition to auditioning for and performing in faculty concerts and an in-department performance group called MOVOM (standing for Mind Over Vision Over Movement), she also joined DanceWorks, a student-run company on campus that produced its own shows across myriad styles. Natalie not only helped lead the group for several seasons, but choreographed a few jazz and musical theater numbers as well.
A Gal With A Plan
Heading into her senior year, Natalie had her heart set on performing professionally—and she never worried that her small stature would stand in her way. “No one has ever told me I was too short to do anything—well, except, of course, to be a Rockette!” she says. “In terms of concert dance, I feel as though the current trend is a more diverse look, where there is no one ‘type’ that all dancers in a company need to be.” Assuming she could be potentially auditioning for six months to a year before landing a company gig, she had a backup plan: to start grad school at Hofstra. “My plan was to audition in between my classes and cross my fingers and hope for the best,” she says.
But instead, during spring semester of her senior year, Natalie spotted a GJDC audition flyer on a Hofstra bulletin board, and though she’d never seen the company perform, she remembered Gus Giordano’s classical jazz style from taking convention classes from him as a kid. She also knew Lindsey Leduc Brenner, a Hofstra alumna who had joined GJDC. So Natalie hopped on the train into Manhattan for her first professional audition ever, and after some partnering, improv, repertory and enduring several cuts, she was one of seven dancers remaining. To her surprise, two months later she was offered a spot in G2. She faced a huge decision: whether or not to move halfway across the country to a city she had never visited to join a company that—despite a glowing international reputation—she had never actually seen perform. “But it wasn’t that hard of a decision to make,” she says. “I knew how big of an opportunity it was and how amazing it was that it came up this soon. I would be an outright fool not to [take it].”
Making It Work
Landing an apprentice or second company spot is a recent grad’s dream—but one harsh reality is that more often than not, it’s also unpaid. Though G2 dancers aren’t paid for company class or understudying the main company during rehearsal—which makes up more than half of their workday—they are paid for performances. The primary performing opportunity is presenting a lecture-demonstration, “Jazz Dance Through the Decades,” several times a year at Chicago-area schools. “[The performance] takes you from the ’20s all the way up until the present day to show how jazz evolved and changed,” from the Charleston in flapper dresses to high-energy swing and disco, Natalie explains. Other performance opportunities have included the Jazz Dance World Congress and Ravinia, a prominent outdoor arts festival, plus the annual spring Giordano on Giordano show, when main company members choreograph on G2 dancers and scholarship students.
It also helps that Giordano has a renowned school affiliated with the company, and therefore built-in teaching opportunities. With some help from her parents and a job waiting tables, Natalie was able to get by until she lined up a steady teaching schedule.
In early 2008, Natalie had established enough teaching work that she was able to quit her serving job—a rite of passage in the life of a professional dancer.
Like every understudy, Natalie waits with bated battement for the opportunity to step into her favorite piece. “I would give my fingernails to do Prey,” she says. Set to Kodo drum music, it’s an extremely physical group piece with daring partnering choreographed by Ron de Jesus. “I get excited just marking through it in rehearsal. You can’t possibly do the movements of Prey without feeling something,” she says. “It’s impossible. I’m sure of it.”
As you read this, Natalie and the company are preparing for their annual fall engagement, which this year has a distinct “celebration of life” theme and includes a revival of Giordano Moves, a 2005 tribute to Gus Giordano’s classic choreography.
As for the future, it’s not tough to guess what Natalie aspires to—it’s what nearly every second-company member covets: a spot in the main company. “That’s what I want, but I know you’ve gotta put the work in and you’ve gotta learn,” she says. “But that’s what I’m hoping my next step will be.”