Coming full circle: Former Buffalo Bills cheerleader living her passion as ODT's assistant artistic director

For Owensboro native Natalie Lopez, being on the dance floor has been home.

And it was apparent early on that it would become a perfect fit.

“Of course when I was little, I don’t really remember my first dance class … but my mom did say that I could never sit still,” Lopez, 32, said.

Lopez, born Natalie Woodard, took her first steps into Johnson’s Dance Studio, home of Owensboro Dance Theatre, at the age of 3 — eventually staying all the way through her late teens and early adulthood while balancing other extracurricular activities.

“... I was a very big sports person — I did volleyball, basketball, soccer,” she said. “Softball and dance were my two main things.”

But by the time she was in middle school, Lopez had to make the choice between the latter two in what she would continue pursuing.

“Softball was so much travel, so much time and I wanted to give something 100%,” Lopez said.

In the end, Lopez decided to give up her catcher’s glove.

“Dance has always been my passion,” she said. “It’s always been my love, and it was something that really fulfilled me as a kid and now even as an adult.”

Throughout her years with the ODT, Lopez said getting into dance was a “natural feeling,” especially with dancing to the music and picking up choreography without issue.

“That was just something that I loved to do,” Lopez said of the latter. “I loved all styles of dance. I really loved jazz — it was just something that I could be my true self with; and I loved it.”

From there, Lopez became one of ODT’s company members by the eighth grade, spending sometimes up to seven days a week rehearsing while also getting the opportunity to travel with her fellow peers to meet and work with professional guest artists.

During her time at Owensboro Catholic High School, Lopez was selected for the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts and was also awarded a summer school scholarship to study at the jazz dance company Giordano Dance Chicago.

“Whenever I’m committed, I give it 110%,” Lopez said. “... (Dance) was my love and I was like, ‘Where can I take this? Where can I grow with this? What can I do with this?’ ”

After high school, Lopez moved nearly 650 miles away from Owensboro to study dance at the University of Buffalo.

“... I was always that kid that wanted to experience new things,” she said. “I loved going to a place where I knew no one.”

Though hours from home, Lopez felt equipped to navigate this new chapter in her life without family and her mentors nearby — specifically stating Joy Johnson, ODT co-founder and current managing artistic director, Karen Carothers, fellow co-founder and former co-artistic director, and Debbie Burden, former teaching artist and choreographer, “kind of set the tools for me.”

“They kind of gave me the little push I needed, and they gave me all the tools and the foundation I needed to go out in the world,” Lopez said. “... Going from their styles of dance to my new teachers up at University of Buffalo, they were similar but very different.”

Lopez continued to progress at UB and was selected to participate in three of the 10 pieces by the senior dance choreographers during her sophomore year.

But it was in 2013 when Lopez was put into the limelight after the professional National Football League’s (NFL) Buffalo Bills held an open call for the team’s cheerleading squad.

“... A couple of my other dancer friends that I was growing up with at college (were) like, ‘Hey, since you’re not leaving for spring break, why don’t you come with us? Why don’t you do this?’ ” Lopez said.

Despite never “(picking) up a pair of pom poms” before, Lopez and her friends were selected for the active roster for one year.

“... (I) never thought I would make it,” she said. “... I got to experience something that not many people get. I had the best seat in the house. I was right there on the field in the cold, rain — you name it, we were there.”

While Lopez said there were some learning curves when transitioning to cheerleading, such as being vocal when it came to chants compared to simply learning and performing movement, it “oddly became natural.”

“... It was crazy, but a great experience,” she said. “I got to meet so many people. I got to travel. I got to do all these fun things that I never could have done.”

Upon graduating from UB, Lopez returned to Owensboro in January 2015 after Johnson invited her to come back and work at the studio.

“Ms. J always kept in contact. She always keeps in contact with all of her students,” Lopez said. “... I was reaching out to her for advice, she was saying, ‘go knock ‘em dead,’ ‘show them your personality,’ ‘you got this.’ ”

Lopez began learning under Johnson’s wing while also helping with ODT’s different shows before Johnson offered Lopez to teach a couple of classes the following semester.

Nine years later, Lopez is one of the members of the organization’s leadership team — currently serving in the role of assistant artistic director.

She describes now teaching others where she first learned to dance to be “rewarding” and a “full circle moment.”

“... A few years after I was teaching here, I started helping out with our fine arts program with Owensboro Dance Theatre that helps with our city schools. Some of those girls now are getting ready to be seniors,” Lopez said. “... I’m like, ‘I remember when you were in the fifth grade, and now you’re looking at colleges. … I hope I’ve influenced you the way Ms. Johnson and Ms. Carothers have.’

“I hope I can inspire that.”

With nearing a decade of working professionally at a place she’s known for a majority of her life, Lopez isn’t looking back.

“… I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” she said.