MY LOOK: Dancer and choreographer Natalie Gelman

MY LOOK: Dancer and choreographer Natalie Gelman

This feature appears in Ottawa Magazine’s April 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe to the print or digital versions.


Natalie Gelman makes her own costumes, which are influenced by world music, both contemporary and traditional (Photo: Lucyna Bakowska)

For the past 10 years, you’ve been a dance instructor, choreographer, and performer in Ottawa, fusing an urban dance style with global dances. How did your interest in dance first come about?
Born and raised in Ottawa, I went to college in Toronto, and one night I heard drums coming from my basement and I discovered an African dance class being held in my building. For the first time, I got to explore the fusion of masculine and feminine energy — the athleticism and sensuality that is African dance. Prior to that, I had been exposed to drum circles, breakdancing, and belly dancing.

When you dance, do you wear a particular outfit or costume?
Usually whatever I wear is representative of the style of dance or music. So if it’s an African dance piece — Afro-urban as I call it — it would have elements of urban wear or street wear, such as sneakers or leggings torn at the side, bright colours. And then I would throw in some African-print fabrics or painted skirts with an African component. It’s a fusion of an urban, hip-hop vibe with more traditional African fabrics and bright colours. If the dance is more traditional, my outfit might have fur and feathers and might include a fringed grass skirt. If it’s Brazilian, bright colours, a flowing skirt, cute short top, beads, feathered earrings.

Where do you get your costumes?
I make them myself. I’m influenced in my designs by current music videos, especially by artists from Nigeria and Ghana; also Carnival costumes or Caribbean costumes; Afro-Haitian and Latin outfits used in salsa. I do a lot of research online.

Does your choice of costume affect the choreography?
Yes. The costume is intended to emphasize the movements of the choreography and highlight the particular culture I’m showcasing, through vivid colours and texture.

Do you have a favourite costume, or is there a particular piece of clothing or accessory that you tend to wear?
I tend to wear earrings with cowrie shells — a shell that was once used as a form of currency in parts of Africa and is also a symbol of fertility because it’s shaped like the vagina. Because it’s an amulet and because the symbolism of the shells feels very powerful, whenever I wear them, I feel like it charges me with good energy.

How does your performer persona differ from your everyday self?
There’s a lot of magic that happens onstage, and it’s as though my energy becomes greater than myself and I take on an exaggerated version of myself that has boundless energy, which I’m able to use to draw my audience into the magic of the performance.

Has anyone commented on your look?
People will say they like how I’ve fused different styles together, because I’ve been inspired by my travels — I’m essentially a mosaic of everything I’ve experienced in my life.