The Work of Art

Dancer and choreographer Natasha Ridley is an alumna of USD.


When it comes to what’s important in life, Natasha Ridley ’16 (MA) is clear: “I can’t live without art. I find freedom in dancing. For me, it’s another way of expressing emotion. Instead of using words, movement is a release.”

In her work as a dancer and choreographer, Ridley combines traditional modern dance techniques with classical ballet; she’s also heavily influenced by the raw emotion of traditional African-American storytelling through dance.

Since the age of 10, she’s found solace and release in dance and the arts. While most artists struggle to find a way to live by art alone, Ridley is particularly clear-eyed about choices. “Art keeps me in a safe space. I’ve always done other things — jewelry making, painting, mixing different media forms — which makes me really happy.”

As a student at San Diego State University, her initial plan was to become a child psychologist, but she ultimately decided that path wasn’t for her. She enjoyed the subject matter and earned her undergraduate degree in psychology, but “there really wasn’t an immediate need to go straight into a master’s program. What I needed to do was figure out what I was going to do to make a living.”

Ridley took an unlikely path, at least for someone as immersed in the arts as she’d always been. “I’m a licensed financial assistant,” she says, with an infectious laugh. “I’ve been blessed to be an organized creative. I have a side of me that’s extremely organized and very efficient. Doing this type of work is fun for me. There’s a lot of problem-solving, which I enjoy.”

Over the course of the eight-year gap between SDSU and her graduate studies at USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, Ridley became a principal dancer at La Diego Dance Theater, performed in a number of classical ballets for local studios, and took part in collaborative shows such as the contemporary repertory company PGK Dance Project and the annual Mission Federal ArtWalk.

She also became a choreographer. “It’s definitely different than dance; you’re creating a story in a different way. You have to figure out a way for the dancers to feel connected to movement. Now you’re involving more than just yourself and your own experience.”

Early in her studies toward her graduate degree, she connected with fellow graduate student and visual artist Maureen (Moe) Abugan ’16 (MA). The two hit it off: both were artists who grew up in Southeast San Diego. The spring before graduation, the pair joined forces to create the Artists Building Community (ABC) project.

“Our vision for the ABC project is to create a lot of different community engagement events or programs that are arts-related for Southeast San Diego,” Ridley says. “MOSAIC, which is in its third year, is the first project we’ve been working on.”

The pair saw a need and sought to fill it. “I’m extremely familiar with Southeast San Diego. I basically grew up there, and a lot of my family either live in Skyline, Valencia Park or Lincoln Park.”

While the vibrant community has a lot going on, she says there’s a dearth of consistent and established arts programs. “If you wanted to take dance classes in Southeast, there aren’t any dance studios that you can easily locate. If you wanted to take painting classes, it’s the same thing.”

Enter MOSAIC. “We look to incorporate art that take topics of importance that have some sense of seriousness to them, and make it a little bit easier for people to interact by using art,” explains Ridley.

She sees a clear relationship between art and leadership. “The two go together. While leadership studies don’t always leave a lot of space for creativity and innovation, when you start to add the arts, you can come up with all sorts of different ideas.”

Ridley laughs her musical laugh, remembering. “Moe and I were the only artists in our cohort. I actually did a dance in my ‘Love and Leadership’ class. We were supposed to bring a gift to share with the class, so of course I performed.

“People are used to thinking, ‘This is not acceptable,’ but I went for it. There are other ways to do things, after all.” — Julene Snyder

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