Karina Encarnacion: Architect, Dancer, Creator


I’ve always known that I was an artist, but in sixth grade my interest in mathematics and art drove me to architecture, and my love for this hybrid field has grown ever since then. Because I am only in my second year of architecture school and have just completed my first studio course, I think I’m still a little early in my studies to decide what my specific style or approach to architecture is. However, I think across all my artistic work, I try to uphold a sense of cleanliness and precision, which I hope will translate to my future, more pragmatic architecture work (right now I mostly practice with abstract and more artistic forms of architecture). Along with my academic architecture projects, I also work with other media including ceramics, polymer clay, photography, and ink and graphite drawing. I don’t like to limit myself with the medium I use, which can be both fun and frustrating. There are so many media that I want to experiment with that I am sometimes unable to pick the one I want to master, so I often feel as if I’m spreading myself thin. However, versatility is important too, and I believe that as my artistic style develops further, it can take shape across many media.

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This fear of “spreading myself thin” has also manifested itself in my struggle to negotiate my time between architecture/academics and dance throughout high school and college. It is a problem that I believe I am blessed to have, as this duality allows me to switch back and forth between my two passions when I feel as if I’m being unsuccessful in one or the other. In fact, people often tell me that the architect and dancer that live within me are like two different people that emerge depending on the day of the week or time of day. (I always say you can tell which form of art I’m leaning towards on a particular day just by the way I dress.) However, while I enjoy my freedom to choose between these two “ personalities", I know there will come a time when I have to choose which path I’ll take professionally, as both dance and architecture are time-consuming and exhausting—physically and mentally. I’m trying to put off this decision as long as possible, relishing my ability to choose which “Karina” I’ll be from day-to-day. 

I began dancing when I was two. I started with ballet, then took up hip-hop in third grade, eventually joining a hip-hop company in St. Louis for 11 years. I also did pointe, modern, jazz, tap, and West African dance somewhere in between. 

I think in middle school and high school, I often looked at dancing as something I had to do, not something I had the privilege of doing. I loved hip-hop, but I was mostly motivated to continue doing the other styles only because I knew they would help me with my technique and strength. For me, hip-hop had the most versatility and made me feel the most comfortable. I was a quiet kid, and hip-hop definitely boosted my confidence and allowed me to unleash a fiercer side of me on stage that my friends and family would otherwise not see. However, although I found satisfaction through this style, I also often felt that my dancing wasn’t good enough—I danced with highly talented peers, and I always felt myself comparing myself to them or questioning why I didn’t get cast for special parts. 

Today, I continue my hip-hop training in New York by taking classes downtown and dancing for CU Generation, one of Columbia’s hip-hop companies. After dancing in New York for almost two years, I have discovered an unprecedented love for dance that I didn’t have in high school, and it has become my main source of happiness and release from my day-to-day problems.  I also realize things that I wish I had known when I was younger. I now feel fortunate to dance—many people have the passion and talent needed to succeed but don’t have the funds to take classes or join a company. I am lucky that I can invest my money and time in my training, something I now enjoy immensely—no longer seeing it as a chore. Similarly, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take advantage of my non-hip-hop training back in high school. I never really strived to improve in other styles of dance with the same vigor I have in hip-hop. Had I pushed myself equally across all disciplines, I would have been a much stronger dancer today. Knowing this, I am determined to start taking technique classes again to pick up where I left off after high school graduation. I think meeting people in New York’s dance community has given me a newfound appreciation and fascination for the more technical forms of dance. I see them now as a form of art I can attain and excel in—if I am willing to put in the work—rather than only a means of improving and strengthening my hip-hop technique. Just as I value finding my artistic style through many visual arts media, I now realize that my artistry as a dancer can take shape through various “media” or styles of dance as well. 

Finally, I think the most valuable lesson I’ve taken from my past experiences is that just like visual arts, dance is subjective. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to become the best dancer in the class or comparing myself to dancers on Instagram because we’re all seemingly doing the same style. However, once I look more closely, it becomes evident that hip-hop has much more variety than I ever imagined. It’s almost impossible to achieve perfection in all forms of hip-hop dance alone. Therefore, I’ve learned that there is no “best”. Each choreographer or dancer has his/her own personal style and taste, and as a dancer and performer, I can’t become everyone’s favorite. I used to be stuck in a small bubble, smothering myself with the idea that my high school choreographer’s opinion was the end-all, be-all, and if I wasn’t chosen for a part, I wasn’t good. Dancing in New York has exposed me to other styles of hip-hop and different choreographers, and I now know that there is a place for everyone to discover and develop their own style. One day, after endless training, I will be someone’s favorite. 

To me, art is anything that is created with the intention of evoking a response from an audience. Whether my art is a building that educates people and provides solutions for environmental issues or a performance in a music video that makes people want to learn how to dance, I want to continue growing as an artist as long as it makes me—and the people around me—think and evolve. While art doesn’t necessarily need to make people feel good (in fact, I think visual art can sometimes be the most effective if it makes viewers uncomfortable), I believe my chosen forms of art should have a positive impact on my audience. Architecture creates physical spaces that people want to inhabit, and dance creates both a personal abstract space for me to find solace, as well as a communal abstract space that brings people together. However I choose to express myself, I want my art to elicit feelings of comfort from my audience, letting them and myself know that art will always exist as a means of both escaping from and addressing life’s problems. 

Although I know my life would be much easier (and would likely bring me more success) if I chose one field to fully master and excel in, I would not be completely happy picking one over the other. I find satisfaction in growing in two directions, rather than just one. Architecture and dance both provide me—by different means—with structure and fluidity, as well as knowledge of tradition and the unexpected. I cannot be the artist I’d like to be if I stopped living between the spheres of architecture and dance. As a result, I will try, for as long as I can, to exist in both these spaces. 

Zehra Naqvi