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In My Next Life I’ll Be A Dancer, In This One I’ll Do Nia

When I was 4 years old I was in my first play. When my big, finale scene came along I was supposed to sweep a moneybag down from a chimney and rejoice. But when the moneybag was not in its place, I was forced to think on my feet and come up with a new ending. I began to improvise a scene: “We don’t need any money, we have each other, we’ll live on love!” Where did I come up with that? I have no idea. But I followed my inspirational dialogue with what I thought would be some awe-inspiring dance moves I had learned in my ballet class. I did some kind of a funked-up pirouette and some leaps. Much to my surprise, the audience began to roar with laughter and applaud. My dancing was funny? It was supposed to be great. While I was a big hit as a comedic actress, I was a big flop as a dancer. Ever since then, I’ve harbored a secret fantasy of becoming a dancer. I have the long arms and legs of a dancer, only I’m an utterly ungraceful klutz and usually end up looking like Elaine from “Seinfeld” when I try to bust a move. Over the years, I’ve slowly given up the dream of ever being a real dancer and settled for using my dance moves as a source of comedy. I’m that girl at the party in the center of the circle doing the running man or cabbage patch or a dance I made up called the “Run for the Border” — I adapted it from a Taco Bell commercial from the ’80s. It’s hot.

It was right around the time that Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video came out that I decided I was going to get my act together and learn how to dance for reals. I was tired of being a funny dancer. I wanted to be a good one. Since I’m a gym rat, I dedicated myself to taking a weekly hip-hop class at my gym, with the goal that I’d be able to perform the “Single Ladies” routine at my 30th birthday party. Only this time, jaws would drop in admiration instead of hysterical laughter. Well, at least in my fantasies. I would go to dance class every week and try to imitate my instructor, but my body just wouldn’t do the crazy things hers was doing. I got stuck doing endless eight-counts in my head and trying fruitlessly to isolate every body part. I became more and more frustrated with myself. What is wrong with me that I look like a mental patient when I try to pop and lock? I hated my body for being so uncooperative, but I didn’t want to give up.

One day I arrived early for hip-hop and caught a glimpse of the class before. I watched a group of grown women screaming, rolling around on the floor, leaping across the room, doing some out of control karate-looking chops — all had goofy grins. I didn’t know what they were doing, but I knew it looked way more fun than hip-hop. I ran up to the front desk, “What’s going on in there?”

“It’s called Nia,” the desk girl said, “It’s kind of like a hybrid of dance, yoga, and martial arts.”

I was so in.

The following week, I ditched hip-hop and I took my first Nia class with instructor Kerry Ann King.

“The beauty of Nia is that it’s a dance class where everybody doesn’t have to do the routine like the instructor,” she said opening the class. “It’s not about what your body looks like or how flexible you are, it’s about maximizing your capacity to dance your best. It’s about becoming comfortable with your body and appreciating what it can do.”

Man, was I happy to be there. That was more than a year ago, and while I never actually became proficient enough to perform the “Single Ladies” routine, I’ve been practicing Nia ever since and still managing to squeeze in some time to train for a half-marathon.

So what is Nia? The official website says:

“Nia is a path to condition, heal and express your self through movement and sensation. A dynamic blend of dance arts, martial arts and healing arts, Nia brings the body, mind, emotions and spirit to optimum health through music, movement and self-expression, guided by the sensation of Pleasure. Nia is designed for any body. It is ageless and limitless, transformational and effective for every person everywhere, from athletes, dancers and fitness instructors, to children, special needs groups and the elderly.”

Yeah, but what does that mean exactly? I’m sure you’re wondering what happens in the average Nia class before you become transformed by pleasure. Yeah, that sounds creepy. Well, there is no average Nia class. Every week, Kerry Ann has a new routine prepared. Some of my favorites have included “English People and their Problems,” featuring only British music; “The Seven Deadly Sins,” where you express the different sins with your body — “wrath” is a real trip; “Opal: Music of the Silk Road,” which is almost as good as vacation to Morocco; “Afro-Beat,” which is a rocking tribute to the music of Fela Kuti; “Pretty Ugly,” which focuses on moving your body in an intentionally “pretty” or “ugly” way; and my very, very favorite, “Psychedelia,” after which I can safely say I know what it must have felt like to be at Woodstock. In addition to the various routines, there is a different focus each month — this month we’re focusing on “breaking habits”; last month we were focusing on “balance.”

I like to describe my Nia experience as an extended playtime, free of all inhibitions. A time when I can stop trying to look cool or judging my body and just enjoy moving to the music. The movement is structured and repetitive, but it’s still easy enough to catch on quickly. There is no “right way” to do it, so you can stop thinking and get into a meditative state. There is always a “free dance” section in each routine where you get to move around the room and be a fairy, or a spy, a nightclub-goer in Laos, or a hippie high on psychedelics (again, my favorite), or just yourself, dancing to the beat. There’s also some martial arts-type kicking and blocking, some voice work, and some stretching. I usually leave tired and sweaty, yet relaxed, like I got my running on and my yoga on, all in one hour. It’s the kind of tired I felt when I was a kid and I used to go out and play in the neighborhood — energizing and jubilant.

I was at a party last week, when I finally realized the effect that Nia has had on me. I was dancing and for once, no one was laughing. “Your moves look hot,” my friend said. I may be no Beyonce, but for the first time ever, I was a pretty good dancer and I knew it. “Yeah, thanks,” I smiled.

The “Love Your Body” section and all articles within it are sponsored by Crystal Light; however, the articles are all independently produced by The Frisky and the opinions and views expressed by the writers and experts are their own.

Photo: iStockphoto

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