The song swells and finishes with one booming note, voices blending in honeyed harmony, and everyone holds their ending pose with huge smiles. Sweat, smoke, and the sound of applause fill the stage. The spotlights streak across the cast’s final moments and briefly alight the tears on the edges of Karina’s stage eye makeup. When the curtain closes, a laugh bubbles out as she high fives castmates and makes her way backstage where food and rest await famished performers. This moment is more than just a musical performance done well. It’s more than singing and dancing. For Karina Alonso, it’s freedom and healing.
“When I was in second grade, the Texas Children’s Choir (now called the Christian Performing Arts Center) came to my school and performed. I was in awe. I told my parents that I needed to do that. I’m pretty sure I said I would die if I couldn’t,” Karina says with a laugh. “I’m so grateful my parents let me join.” Her two sisters joined with her, but Karina was in it in a way that no one else was. She was completely hooked. “We did a lot of hip hop and gospel music and performed all over the Metroplex, including Bass Hall twice,” she says. “My passion for performing and for Jesus came from that season.”
Even though she had a passion for the stage, Karina struggled with severe insecurity off-stage. With early acne, unruly hair, and a small gap in her front teeth, Karina got teased in school. People she thought were her friends made comments about her appearance or goofy laugh, and the enemy placed a seed of rejection and inferiority deep in her heart. This painted everything: her abilities as a performer, her relationships, and her identity as a whole. “When I think about it, I didn’t put up much of a fight when it came to my identity.” she says. “It’s like I heard the enemy tell me one day that I wasn’t good enough, and I just believed him.”
In the years following, the enemy carefully wove a narrative for Karina that she was never good enough or pretty enough, and Karina did everything she could to try to measure up. “I remember going to the mall and buying makeup for the first time and thinking, Oh, I can cover things. I learned how to straighten my hair and keep my laugh in check,” Karina says. “I learned how to put on a mask so people would like me. I was a pro at hiding my true self.” The stage became a natural place for Karina to hide in plain sight. There she could be someone else and gain the acceptance and praise she desired more than anything, but inside, she felt like a fraud.
In 2016, after two years of community college without a declared major, the mask became too heavy. She was taking several dance classes because she found so much joy in it, but she was also terrified to make a life out of it. The enemy kept her frozen. “I wanted to major in dance and choreography, but I was so afraid of not being good enough, and some people said a lot of painful things about me that year that increased my feelings of rejection and insecurity,” she says. “I was in an identity tailspin.” For Karina, there weren’t many days that didn’t end in tears.
It was on one of those days that Karina felt compelled to create a dance. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just felt a pull in my heart to do this,” she says. “So I created this dance about how I felt the day someone called me ugly and fat, and how hard it was to forgive them. Afterward, I felt like all the weight fell off my shoulders.” That dance changed everything. She got a chance to perform it in one of her dance classes at school, and in that moment, she began to understand the power God placed in the creative arts to heal and free us.
In the days and months following, she began to dance out her prayers, similar to how other people write or paint or create. Dance was no longer a way for her to receive praise, but a physical demonstration of her prayers and praise to God. “Dance was setting me free,” Karina says. “Through it, I began to wade through the enemy’s lies and unravel who I really am.” Because of this, she transferred to Texas Women’s University, and amid much anxiety and fear, declared dance as her major.
Karina felt her insecurities start to fade, but she knew her freedom was still a work in progress. And when the Gateway Christmas musical auditions were advertised in the fall of 2016, she wanted to be part of it but struggled in her confidence. “My only prayer after the audition was, ‘God, let me be okay with a no,’” she says. While she was preparing for rejection, the Lord was preparing the perfect spot for her. Much to her surprise, she received a callback and then accepted a role in the ensemble. As rehearsals began, she realized this was more than just a fun musical. It would bring healing to many people, herself included.
“The Performing Arts team helped us realize that the show was about breaking chains, declaring freedom, bringing joy, sharing salvation, and claiming identity for ourselves and the audience,” she says. “My heart was in the right place—I definitely wanted to minister to people through the show—but to do that, I knew I had to be vulnerable and deal with my issues.” As the cast and crew spent time talking through the spiritual importance of certain scenes, the Lord spoke to Karina about fear and about her identity. Random people in the cast or at work started to spot her finely tuned mask and lovingly coaxed her real self to emerge. Even her boss at the Gateway Café started asking about her identity and goals. Karina responded by slowly prying the mask off piece by piece. She stopped straightening her hair and using so much makeup. And she let her goofy laugh burst out.
By the time she got to performances, every movement and every note were symbolic of her breaking off chains of rejection and taking off her mask of insecurity. “My sole job on that stage was to help others see my story through dance and trust God to break their chains as well,” she says. “It was definitely weird to experience something so personal and life-changing while in front of thousands of people. But it was the first time I went on stage being 100 percent me, and it was liberating.” All the things Karina always hated about herself, like her gap teeth and crazy hair and laugh, were now on full display, and in her newfound freedom, she began truly celebrating who God created her to be.
In the years since then, Karina has been part of several more Gateway productions and events, including choreographing and performing a piece at their annual Night of Scenes event, serving in a behind-the-scenes role in this summer’s production of Mary Poppins, and performing in this year’s upcoming Christmas musical, Chasing Lights. With each show, she’s continued to learn more about her identity in Christ. “The staff, cast, and crew of every show go out of their way to make sure every person on the platform is ministering out of their own experiences and freedom,” she says. In turn, as one of her final school projects, Karina has taken all she’s learned about her identity and choreographed a powerful piece called “That’s Not My Name,” where she and several other dancers from her university declare through vivid movement that they will not accept the names the enemy has called them. She is still learning what it means to accept herself and the talents God has given her, but dancing every day keeps her in tune with Christ.
“Performing arts is freedom ministry!” she says enthusiastically. “There’s something so powerful about reacting physically to the Lord and what He’s doing in your life—whether it’s by raising your hands in worship or bowing or clapping. For me, singing and dancing are my passion, my healing, and my way of using everything I have to worship and respond to Him.”
For information on this year’s Christmas musical, visit gatewaychristmas.com.