Natalie Schneck On Bringing Dance to Every Body, Building a Business, and Achieving Balance
This is the first in a regular series of blog posts in which I speak with exciting artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs exploring how their creative skills have enabled them to do incredible things in their personal and professional lives.
You can find all of these interviews by searching for the tag #CreativeInnovative.
Natalie Schneck is a performer, dancer, choreographer, teacher, and entrepreneur. She is the Founder and Owner of the dance company 123 Steps Ahead. As 123 Steps Ahead's first American partner, Vibrance is very excited to bring this program to the Atlanta area in 2018. Stay tuned!
F: We first met each other in 2004 and were in the same theatre ensemble at Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. While we remained friends, our lives have taken us in different paths. However, what is remarkable is how our complementary underlying values have directed our lives. This has led to an exciting new chapter, a partnership allowing us to foster and support each other professionally.
N: Yes, you and I ended up in quite an eclectic ensemble at SFU and what was great about the group was the collective work ethic we created. I feel like that work ethic combined with a strong inclination for innovation and creativity has absolutely brought us to this new and exciting chapter!
F: To start with, tell me a little about your training in the arts.
N: I’ve been involved in creative arts since preschool. I was born in Edmonton, Alberta. As a teenager I performed in several musical theatre shows both in and out of school, and took some dance lessons. I went on to complete a BFA in theatre performance from SFU followed by a year intensive of contemporary dance technique and choreographic training at Concordia University in Montreal. Throughout my training, I was often creating and performing in my own theatre and dance works or in the work of other artists. One of the highlights of my performance career was my very first professional dance contract in French choreographer Jerome Bel’s international hit piece, The Show Must Go On. I also had the pleasure of dancing in a creation by Catherine Gaudet for the 2015 TransFormation program. I have been lucky to have my own work shown across Canada, in Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton, and Toronto. Recently, I created and performed a show in Vancouver with musician and composer Elliot Vaughan, under Iffy South, his band's name.
F: Has your training taken you to other places? What are some of the most interesting locations you have experienced?
N: Yes, I took a trip to Berlin and Poznań, Poland a few years ago and spent time in the underground dance clubs moving to industrial music, eurodance, and dubstep. I also saw shows at small theatres and cabarets. I’ll never forget witnessing the woman dancing alone in a park in Poland, the park was idealistic in its landscaping while she was totally disheveled in her movements. These images and experiences continue to be very inspiring and informative for my artistic work.
More formally, I took dance workshops with Polish and American artists in Portland as part of the TBA festival and I found that city energetic and also soothing, especially during festival time. I also took classes in NYC and that was cool, being taught by former Russian ballet stars in Manhattan and then learning from a contemporary company in Brooklyn, it was a good experience to get both types of work in my body. Then, being chosen to work with Compagnie Marie Chouinard in Montreal for an répertorie intensive of The Rite of Spring. I loved that! So imaginative and open, a lot of release and breath work and you can see this softness and responsiveness in the bodies of her dancers.
F: You have created some incredible projects, many of which are collaborative and call on your ability to communicate.
N: Thank you! Yes, communication really is a skill.
F: What are the benefits and challenges of collaboration?
N: The benefits are that you are working with people and the challenges are that you are working with people! Haha. But in all seriousness, when you collaborate you are able to work with another perspective, another skill set and another sensibility, this can be such a strength if it aligns well. The challenge is separating the actual work from one’s own personal projections and what I call “stuff” while still expressing a sensitivity and openness – it is quite delicate and requires a lot of presence. I always think about laying the most fertile and fun ground for someone else to flourish and for his or her ideas to come to fruition - for each person that looks quite different. A good question I like to remember is, “what does this person need right now?”
F: Yes, I find myself asking the same thing! It’s a totally different mindset when you make it about where the other person is “at” and use that awareness to shape your communication with them.
N: Yes, communication has to be flexible because connecting with other people requires flexibility, people come to the lunch or coffee table with a lot of their own stuff and it’s complicated. Flexibility and knowing when to actively listen is important.
"communication has to be flexible because connecting with other people requires flexibility, people come to the lunch or coffee table with a lot of their own stuff and it’s complicated. Flexibility and knowing when to actively listen is important."
F: For you, what are some of the accomplishments of which you are most proud?
N: First, I am developing a life for myself that is true to who I am (this is ongoing), I have lived where I want to live, I have allowed myself time and space to become and evolve as an artist, I have met amazing and inspiring people from all walks of life.
The second is in creating the 123 Steps Ahead program and seeing the positive impact it is having on people, it really is a feeling like no other.
Third is my education. I think education is so important and I really do have mine to thank as a gateway to a different and beautiful life.
F: How did you decide to take your art in the direction of creating 123 Steps Ahead?
N: I started working in education in Montreal and I saw the benefits of physical educational programming. I also Loved the kids and wanted to be able to take my training and experience in the arts into a program that would benefit them long term.
I am passionate about dance being for everybody and I fundamentally believe in this. This does not mean that I think “democratizing dance” is better than say training intensively in ballet since the time one was three. Rather, it is a different way of seeing a possible dance training trajectory for someone. I have an innate sense of justice I think the 123 philosophy really is an extension of this.
F: Did this require you to take on additional training/encountered learning curves?
N: I did the additional year of training at Concordia in Montreal as a mature student and then it was many workshops and ordering books on fundamentals of creative movement for children and youth that I would draw from in my research and creation of a curriculum, it was also consulting OT’s such as yourself, Educational Psychologists and RCC’s. All of this was necessary for where I am now.
F: Are you able to make your creativity an aspect of all of your jobs?
N: My creativity and rigour is always present. Sometimes it comes out in my ability to hyper-focus and concentrate on a task, or in ow I collaborate on a new idea or come out with innovative solutions to problems big or small. Or just dipping into my sensitivity when I see that a colleague is needing something different from me in terms of communication.
F: Do you have other (non-creative) work that you engage in? How did you make that choice?
N: Yes – I work in development at The Cultch, a contemporary arts theatre and gallery in the city; I chose this particular job because it required a solid combination of skills I already have along with the opportunity to sharpen new skills such as running campaigns and copywriting.
F: And that dovetails with your business education, another way to combine that with the arts and support you own business.
How do you use your performance skills in undertaking “non-creative” jobs?
N: I am an active and present listener with coworkers and clients. I also can read situations quickly and respond appropriately. I am skilled at problem solving quickly, at reading situations and the emotional tone quickly and adjusting. Emotionally intelligence is immensely valuable; reading between the lines of communication and responding appropriately, or knowing that if something seemingly negative happens it is almost always not personal. And also awareness of other cultures, when I am in Montreal I do my best to speak french, stuff like that…it goes a long way.
F: How do you create? From where do you draw inspiration?
N: It really depends. Sometimes ideas come to me quickly and intensely and I have to respond and then sometimes there is nothing for a little while. My inspiration is not consistent but I do know that when I feel inspired I am committed to that feeling and it is almost like I have to respond to it – I have to express something put of it. Lately, it has been music, a lot of music, which aligns well with my program and with my choreographic work; I love how words in a rhythmic form such as a song can fit so well with movements.
F: What role does communication, performance, and using your voice/body to connect to others, to create an impact have in your life?
N: It plays a huge role on a daily basis, my work really only manifests through other people so clarity of communication both physical and verbal is vital and necessary. Also, you can’t do it alone in this world so earning how to connect genuinely and in the present with other people is key.
F: You're juggling two jobs and still creating work! How do you prevent burnout?
N: I take a day off – a true day off and I let myself flow, just do whatever I want in no order and in no set rhythm, this is usually quite nourishing creatively.
F: Oh my goodness! I do the same I need a day or two that isn’t run on the clock, where my brain can just idle and process as it needs to.
Do you set boundaries with regards to managing your personal from your creative spaces?
N: Good question. Personally I am actually quite introverted. I need a lot of alone time and I enjoy being alone. So I suppose that’s a boundary in itself. It’s like when I collaborate it’s social time and I enjoy that, but I know at the end of the night or day I am going home alone and I need that. I also work to keep relationships in the context they are in, if it’s work it’s work, if it’s friends and business then it’s friends and business, if it’s intimate then it’s intimate. However, I think adapting and compartmentalizing too much is not good – it means I can’t be my holistic and genuine self. I am aware that my ability to compartmentalize can be an impediment so I practice flexibility with these ideas as things always change.
F: Yes, I like people and I like finding those who collaborate well, but I also find myself “on” around others and know that I recharge alone.
What roles do intuition and aesthetic play in your personal life?
N: Intuition has come more and more into play as I get older. I just have feelings about situations, both work and personal, and I have started to trust those feelings more and respond or make decisions in accordance. I am always drawn to creating a certain aesthetic; I am really sensitive to space so I like things minimal for the most part. Although one of my dreams jobs is doing window displays! I think it would be fun – maybe 123 Steps Ahead will have a window display one day.
F: Can you give us an idea of what some of the communities with which you are identified?
N: I connect to the artistic community, families and youth, the business community, the philanthropist community, the legal community. I think it informs me in the sense that I take on projects that are both creative and pragmatic. I love meeting new people and I am forever curious about people. Before I go to dinner or coffee with someone I often think “I can’t wait to hear this person’s story!” This excites me. I love people and I am fascinated by where they come from them, all the experiences they’ve had, and how all this has shaped their perspective and what’s important to them.
F: Has your community activism evolved? What lessons have you learned along the way?
N: It really has. I am proud of bringing 123 Steps Ahead to so many people so far and leaving a positive and empowering experience with them. What have I learned along the way? To get really comfortable with failure, to make friends with the idea – when you try something new there’s growing pains, there’s iterations, and there’s problem solving, all these things are OK and necessary.
F: What type of students do you teach?
N: Right now we teach children, youth and adults from 18 months – no limit …we want to pilot a senior’s program and we are currently looking at PEI as a starting place. At all levels. Just be open and imaginative with a sense of humour.
F: What values underpin your teaching approach?
N: I believe in the value of 123 Steps Ahead because our program is graded to meet each client, child or adult, at his or level, developing functional and efficient movement in a creative and fun environment. 123 Steps Ahead is about the democratisation of dance, creating opportunities for children and adults regardless of their circumstance, to experience a dance class and to receive dance training. The 123 Steps Ahead kids are not judged on technique or by living up to a coded dance standard; they are nurtured and encouraged to grow from the level they are at. With 123 Steps Ahead, there is space for everybody, and every person is a valuable member of the class. This ideology works to create confidence in each child that his or her presence and ideas are worthwhile, and regardless of background, everybody has a voice and a valuable contribution to make. This way, we build confidence and social skills.
We have grown throughout Canada, offering our program in community centres, schools, and daycares. Recently, in partnership with March of Dimes Canada, we have been able to offer our program to children who have special needs. This year, we started offering private sessions with children and adults. Now it is time to begin expanding this program into the United States.
F: What do you say to people who claim to “not be creative”?
N: I just don’t agree! I think creativity is a human quality and yes there are varying levels but I believe that everyone has creative ability, it just comes out in different forms and on different scales and that’s actually really cool.
F: What are the moments that reward you as a teacher?
N: When a student take a concept and tries it autonomously; when he or she is able to fully integrate a movement pattern; when we work together to see that “failing” at something actually just created another movement that is more beautiful in it’s authenticity.
F: How did you get into starting your own business?
N: I was in Montreal. I was lonely, uncomfortable, and felt challenged by being an outsider and at a transitional time in my life. Making art in theatre and dance didn’t hold the same meaning for me anymore. I started leaning towards teaching more so then performing and I found this aligned passion working with kids. I loved seeing the positive impact I could bring to them. This started with teaching a sports program to several public and private groups in Montreal, then, because schools and daycares wanted me to stay on board working with the kids, I proposed a creative movement program that I had begun to create - 123 Steps Ahead.
F: What was the toughest learning curve that you experienced? How did you tackle this phase?
N: My very first class of 123 Steps Ahead in Montreal was very difficult, it felt like I was continually failing and it almost caused me to not take a much larger contract which would have been such a mistake! My program ran so well at Garderie Papillon. What got me through was my ability to problem solve and then to incorporate solutions that worked into my next contract. Also being aware that personalizing the situation was not useful.
F: It’s all that creation process isn’t it, not everything works out the first time. The wheels fall off and you think either, “Oh now I know what to do” or, “I have no idea what the solution is but that isn’t it!”
Do you feel that there are unique challenges when ones’s business is so personal to you?
N: Yes I feel highly responsible, which is true – I am, for many things. I think practicing boundaries is crucial. Otherwise it is easy to become overwhelmed. I am also interested in having a business partner; it just needs to be the right fit. I suppose we are doing a sort of model of this, and I like it! It feels right (there’s that intuition!)
F: What are the most useful strategies/tools/devices/programs that support your business and work?
N: Definitely our lesson plan manual and the website. I am actually in the process of transitioning over to Square Space. And then there are our partners, March of Dimes Canada, CPE terre des Enfants to name a few…Vibrance Center soon as well!
F: As an entrepreneur, what creative skills come in useful?
N: Knowing when to be extroverted, bringing form to the chaos, problem solving, emotional intelligence, sensitivity to other people, also knowing when to let go of an idea or a possible contract or partner
I have a sense of humor. Also personality wise I am innately practical and work with “the bottom line” but I also allow myself space for creativity. When I feel myself becoming severe or falling into the anxiety of the high stakes I practice self care, maybe it’s a movie, maybe a bath or a dance class, this always helps.
F: How has the landscape of your sector changed? Have customer’s expectations changed?
N: I think now more then ever parents are looking for programming that will instill confidence and social skills in their children along with physical literacy that will be with them for the rest of their lives. I can speak to the huge benefits of exercise and physical activity as a healthy regulation and coping tool
As my program doesn’t teach traditional coded dance such as ballet and some schools really want defined dance programs – hip hop, ballet, etc. That is just not 123, and it’s crucial that we stick with our branding and our value system, even though it means losing some contracts.
F: Where do you see your business going?
N: Eventually 123 Steps Ahead will be global for children, youth, and families. We will also expand to adults and seniors. It’s really going to open up a “I can do it” attitude in learning dance and break down the notion of elitism. I think we will have a whole new global generation of dancers that are amazing just the way they are. I am excited for this!
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