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At 13, Naperville Full-Time Dancer Balances Passion With School

Originally published by the Naperville Patch.

NAPERVILLE, IL — Natalia Garcia understands that anything worth doing is worth doing well. But she also knows that anything doing well requires serious time and dedication.

Devoting herself to her love of dance has never been an issue for the Naperville eighth grader who splits her time rehearsing in contemporary, hip hop, jazz and ballet disciplines between Naperville and Chicago. But maintaining a busy rehearsal schedule also requires time management, especially when it comes to navigating her schoolwork.

Like other teens her age, maintaining any semblance of educational normalcy has been difficult through the COVID-19 pandemic, where remote learning, masks and other restrictions have made learning challenging. But for a 13-year-old full-time competitive dancer who has her sights set on one day becoming a professional choreographer for Broadway shows, movies or other stage productions, finding time for everything hasn’t always been easy.

But choosing to be home-schooled in which she learns 1-on-1 with a virtual instructor while seeing to her own school workload has made things much more manageable. But getting to that point, Natalia said, continues to take some time and adjustment.

“Dance is a huge dedication when you’re taking it seriously, and until you do it, you don’t understand it,” Natalia told Patch. “But then it’s fine. Other athletes give up so much and dedicate their lives and I think I did feel (in the past) like nobody understood me. It wasn’t their fault because it’s really hard to get.

“I’m still figuring it out myself. …It’s all about finding a happy medium and balance.”

Natalia now uses a program called Time4Learning, which allows her the freedom to get a full-time education while building her education around a schedule that works for her. Depending on that day’s dance rehearsal schedule, Natalia has found a rhythm in online learning that requires her to manage her time as part of a daily routine that can keep her in a virtual classroom —or in the dance studio —as late as 10:30 p.m. on some days.

The home-schooling option became a necessity after Natalia spent two years working as a choreographer’s assistant as part of the DanceMakers national tour. The experience provided her with the opportunity to work alongside dance professionals who had worked on the FOX reality show “So You Think You Can Dance” and other nationally televised shows like “Dancing With The Stars.”

The experience was amazing, she said, but before long, Natalia’s parents began to realize that if their daughter is going to remain committed to both dance and school, something had to change. Home-schooling became an affordable option, but the first job was to convince Natalia it was worth considering.

“I never thought of home-schooling, just because I always thought (school) was manageable,” said Natalia, who first started dancing at age 3 and who shifted to competitive dancing at age 6. “I always thought big and said, ‘I can do it, I can do it.’”

When COVID-19 hit and schools went remote, Natalia said her doubts started. As someone who thrives on social interaction, the idea of not being around her classmates on a regular basis made the idea of home-schooling frightening, she said.

But last summer, when Natalia found herself at a national dance competition where many of her fellow dancers were home-schooled to allow them to devote themselves to full-time training and instruction, the idea of learning at home on her own terms became more appealing, Natalia said.

The idea of training full-time while also keeping up in school suddenly made sense. Not only to Natalia, but to her parents, who saw some of Natalia’s former schoolmates at Indian Prairie District 204 treat her differently because of her dancing passion.

“Cliques are everywhere,” Natalia’s father, Mario Garcia told Patch. “I said, ‘I don’t think they realize you’re a dancer. Either there are school activities or you’re a jock, but they didn’t consider her that. So, a lot of times, I thought she was being bullied because she was taking dance seriously and because she wasn’t out with her friends partying.”

Natalia, who devotes 14-20 hours a week to dance, noticed the same tendencies.

“In middle school, I don’t think they got how much dedication it took and how I was sacrificing for (dance),” she said. “For me, it didn’t matter I was giving up going to football games or going out with friends. What I really wanted to focus on was dance.

“But the fact I am around girls who are doing the same thing and get what we’re doing definitely helps.”

Now, as part of the Time4Learning curriculum, Natalia can now see to her schoolwork in hotel rooms, on airplanes and in the car as she commutes to and from rehearsals and on lengthy drives to dance competitions that can keep her on the road for long periods of time.

Finding herself educationally remains a work in progress. Natalia admits to often putting undue pressure on herself, which leads to even more stress. By managing her own educational schedule, she said she is able to work at her own pace and around her own time commitments without feeling like she is sacrificing anything in terms of keeping up with her academics.

Mario Garcia appreciates the fact home-schooling allows his daughter to work on her own schedule and at her own pace all without the pressures of learning in a group environment that he said became difficult in remote learning environments.

Next year, Natalia will return to a traditional high school although where that will be remains unknown. With dance a huge part of her life, Natalia and her parents will find the best option – one that both allows Natalia to get the education she knows is so important while also allowing her to chase after her dance dreams.

For now, she is keeping her options open of how her future takes shape.

“I’m willing to be open to anything that comes to me,” Natalia told Patch. “I just think keeping those doors open and being willing to put yourself in uncomfortable positions that will make you grow more is something I have learned.

“I just want to share my love and passion for dancing to amazing generations of kids to come.”

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