This month, we spoke with Catherine Keller Van Ness, a graduate of our Dance Department who combines her dance experience with passion for international service in her work with JUNTOS Collective. Now in her fourth year as Program Director, Catherine took time out of her busy schedule to chat about her career and memories of Walnut Hill.
What brought you to Walnut Hill originally, and what was your experience like as a dance student here? Do you have a favorite memory from those years?
I was just five years old when I first stepped into a dance studio at Walnut Hill. I was fortunate to be growing up in Natick, so when my parents wanted to try out dance classes as an extracurricular activity, I had a top-rate option right in my hometown! In terms of choosing Walnut Hill as my high school, I already knew that the dance program was of a really high caliber, and I was looking for challenging academics but in a setting that would complement my commitment to my art. In public school, I had always felt like my academic and artistic studies were at odds with each other, so I was really pleased to find out about the academic schedule at Walnut Hill.
My favorite memories from my years at Walnut Hill come from the bonding during long rehearsals, especially Saturday mornings for the party scene of The Nutcracker.
Catch us up on the years since you graduated—what did you do after Walnut Hill, and how did that lead you to the career you have now?
After graduating from Walnut Hill, I completed the B.F.A. dance program at the Alvin Ailey School and Fordham University in New York City. Fordham is a Jesuit university, which meant that I was surrounded by opportunities to volunteer and the tenets of social justice work. Something that has stuck with me over the years is the principle of homines pro aliis, men and women for and with others. This combination of professional dance and community service was the perfect incubator for JUNTOS Collective, an international nonprofit using dance to build confidence and transcend barriers.
Throughout college, I traveled with JUNTOS to underresourced communities in Guatemala and Nicaragua to teach and perform contemporary dance in a setting that most certainly was not a proscenium stage. As I witnessed firsthand the power of communicating through dance with people who did not have ready access to the arts, I fell in love with dance all over again. After college, I wanted to help expand the offerings of the organization, so I worked with our Director to create a new leadership program for students, JUNTOSAmbassador. Making the jump from participant to administrator wasn't smooth at first, but I was excited to learn more about the behind-the-scenes working of a young nonprofit. This is now my fourth year as Program Director, and I have worked with nearly 20 young leaders, guiding them through the process of proposing and building their own arts-based social justice projects.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for our newest alumni who are just entering the world?
Grab opportunities to try new things, especially using your art in new ways. The work ethic that we gain through intense artistic study is so useful to carry with us, and sometimes that translates to a narrow focus on the potential our talents hold for the future. You'll never know how powerful your art is until you get off the stage and out from behind your easel and look someone else in the eyes as you share that innermost part of yourself with them.
Sometimes you also have to let your passion drive you in the direction you should be going. Whether it's a small injustice you witness or a personal passion project, follow your drive and you will be rewarded every day, even on the hardest days, by going to bed fulfilled by your work.