USU Air Force Student Soars from World Dance Stage to Medical School Arena

Air Force 2nd Lt. Natalie King, a medical student and former competitive Irish dancer, reflects on her journey from childhood dance classes to achieving her dream of competing at the World Championship, and how the discipline and perseverance learned through dance continue to shape her pursuit of a career in medicine at the Uniformed Services University.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Natalie King at the 2017 National Championships in New Orleans, LA. [Photo credit: (left photo) Tom Balfour, USU, (right photo) courtesy of 2nd Lt. Natalie King]
Air Force 2nd Lt. Natalie King at the 2017 National Championships in New Orleans, LA. [Photo
credit: (left photo) Tom Balfour, USU, (right photo) courtesy of 2nd Lt. Natalie King]

March 5, 2024 by Vivian Mason

Standing in the cafeteria lunch line, Air Force 2nd Lt. Natalie King, a class of 2027 student in the
Uniformed Services University (USU) Hebert School of Medicine, finds herself in a peculiar pose - hips rotated outward and toes pointed to the side - practicing what dancers call a “turnout.” Unaware that she’s being watched, King’s mind is focused on her body movement while she simultaneously surveys what’s available on the steam table.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Natalie King, USU  School of Medicine Class of 2027.  (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
Air Force 2nd Lt. Natalie King, USU 
School of Medicine Class of 2027. 
(Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
“Most of the time, I don’t even know I’m doing it,” King laughs. “I’m so used to practicing all the time. When I was competing, I’d practice at least four days a week for about two to three hours per day. Even when I was little, I used to study and dance at the same time.” 

The “it” is Irish dancing. King got started with Irish dancing when her family was stationed in Germany. It was offered at a local community center for the military, and at age 8, King’s mother signed her up for lessons. At first, she hated it because she felt out of place and didn’t think she could keep up with the class. Her mother convinced her to persevere and, eventually, she learned to love the joyous, yet tremendously regimented activity.

That love would carry King for over 11 years as she became a dedicated, seasoned dancer. She remembers loving Irish dancing so much that she and her next-door neighbor practiced every day. They often choreographed their own routines and put on performances for the neighborhood. “We loved it, and I loved teaching people. It was so much fun,” she admits. 

King embraced everything from the music to dance classes to competing at “feiseanna” (pronounced fesh-ah-na), Irish dance competitions/festivals, and making friends with dancers from all over Europe. Her family ended up visiting many European countries through her dance activities.  

She recalls having fond memories of carrying her show costume and packing her dance bag with her “tools of the trade”: hard and soft shoes, extra shoe laces, socks, tights, hair pins, buckles, hairbrush, and hairspray. King and her family would often leave early in the morning and return home late at night.

Following a move to North Dakota, King recalls there were no Irish dance studios around, so her parents had to drive her three hours away to Canada to take lessons on the weekends.

From a young age, Irish dancing showed King the importance of hard work, sacrifice, and discipline. To
dance at a high level, she sometimes had to miss out on spending time with friends and social events. King had to learn how to push through fatigue, often bringing homework to a competition to do while waiting for her turn to dance and sometimes even doing her assignments in the car. 

King’s ultimate dance goal was to go to a World Championship. Typically, only the top 10% of regional and/or national competitors qualify for Worlds. King readily took on the challenge alongside her dance troupe of 20 members from the Drake School of Irish Dance, and went on to place first at a regional competition, sending the troupe straight to Worlds.

King’s experience at Worlds was memorable and brought her full circle because, just prior to appearing onstage, she found out that her first dance teacher in Germany had been selected as moderator for the dance drama routine that her troupe was performing. The job of the moderator was to read the story before they danced their six- to eight-minute routine.

“Before I left Germany,” King says, “my teacher gave me a book inscribed with the words, ‘I know I’m going to see you on the world stage someday.’ So, when I came around the backstage curtain and saw her at the podium, it made me so happy that she was the one to read for my troupe and that she saw me dance on a world stage. We placed second, and she presented us with the trophy. It was truly one of my proudest moments. We worked so hard to get all the way to Worlds, and it was truly something special.”

King at the 2018 World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt. Natalie King)
King at the 2018 World Championships in
Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo courtesy of 2nd Lt.
Natalie King)
When King speaks with budding dancers, they always want to know if she’s been to Worlds. “Now,” marvels King, “I reply with a definitive ‘yes!’ I tell them if they put in the hard work, they can get there, too.”

Currently, King is retired from Irish dancing. She considered going back to dance upon arriving in Maryland and even found a studio to use, but knew that she needed to focus on her first year of medical school at USU. She says that, even before dance, she wanted to be a doctor, explaining that medicine has always been her chosen academic path.

King was born prematurely and heard all about the neonatologist who attended to her, as well as the family stories that came along with her birth. So when her first-grade teacher asked what she wanted to be when she got older, King laughs, “I said that I wanted to be a neonatologist, not that I understood exactly what it was. And, I pronounced it correctly, too!”

Her dad was in the military and knew about USU. So, when the time came, King looked into the school. She wanted to find a place that connected with her, and had heard that USU’s campus was friendly and welcoming. What truly struck her, though, was the University’s motto: “Learning to Care for Those in Harm’s Way.”

“The school’s motto really resonated with me, because that’s the type of medicine I want to practice,” King explains. “If I’m exposed to a situation where someone is in harm’s way, I want to have the means to help them and know confidently what to do. I feel that USU gears its curriculum toward that.”

Irish dancing will always be a part of her life. Even now, dance has buoyed her with resilience, stamina, strength, confidence, and focus. She knows how to work hard and push through. She asserts that many of the lessons she learned in dance have been transferable to medical school.

“The hardest thing about Irish dancing is your own perseverance,” says King. “It takes a lot of hard work to dance well and perform intricate steps in front of an audience. In competitions, you’re only dancing about a minute or two. It doesn’t seem that long, but you’re so tired at the end and aren’t allowed to show it. You have to keep your composure, smile wide, and not let the nerves and stress get to you.” 

And though King had to get her bearings in medical school, she still thinks about dancing every once in a while. “Even if I don’t compete, maybe dancing one day a week might be fun to do. Still, when I get stressed, I’ll do a dance routine to calm my nerves. Dance is never far away from me. When I pose for photos, I always turn my feet out.”