"I Danced My Way to Self-Acceptance"

Nia dance classes transformed the way she felt about her body.

By Jan Jarboe Russell
Photograph: iStock

Initially, dancing an hour a day seemed impossible in terms of my schedule. But I soon saw it differently: It’s because I’m so busy that I need the daily commitment to my own movement. Eventually I lost 15 pounds, but not by depriving myself. Food became a source of nourishment instead of something to fear. My stamina increased. I slept soundly at night. My resting heart rate went from 75 beats a minute to 65.
I also overcame a strong resistance to making noise. I’d felt foolish shouting "Hey!" or "Hah!" while kicking and throwing punches. Then I recognized that I was scared of the sound of my own voice resonating through my body. Now these exclamations feel explosive and powerful. The physical expression of any emotion — sadness or elation, anxiety or tranquility — is my way of staying close to my heart.
After dancing for five years, I became certified to teach Nia. I’ve continued my training, all the way to a black belt, and I lead three classes a week.
Last year Prissy Atherton, one of my longtime students, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 65. Prissy was one of those beautiful, well-mannered women, with a cap of gray hair and neutral polish on her nails. Prior to her illness, she’d danced to maintain her good looks. When I went to visit her, Prissy said that even though she was weak, she still danced a little at home every day. "I feel myself gently leaving," she told me. "My body is so vulnerable. Moving is precious to me."
I confided to Prissy that as a 13-year-old I’d believed a lie: that my body was inherently flawed. Now I understand that underneath the fear of my basic physical needs was an interior deadness, a terrifying lake of lifelessness that was the primary source of my misery. It was death in all its forms that I feared. The simple truth is that it is physically impossible to feel dead while moving.
Prissy was a believer, a spiritual woman. That day we talked about the need to create our own ordinary sacraments in daily life. One definition of a sacrament is that it is a physical reality through which the divine makes its presence felt. The need for communion with what’s holy seems to be essential to us humans. Our brains and body are hardwired for it. Much of our yearning for material things is a disguised form of hunger for this contact with the numinous. Through dance, I make this connection. In the end, I dance to heal an old religious wound, to experience the pleasure of moving as a sacred act, not something shameful. I dance to free myself from the sin of not dancing.
A month or so before she died, I arranged for Prissy to go to the Nia studio after hours. She was in a wheelchair by then, but she rolled it onto the floor and let her feet, hands, and head move freely, allowing what Prissy called her life force to express itself. I was not there to witness it, but the name of the room where we do Nia is Laughter, and Prissy later assured me that laughter had been part of her final dance. "Thank you," she said a few days later. "It was a blast."
Jan Jarboe Russell is the author of Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson. She teaches Nia at the Synergy Studio in San Antonio, Texas.
Nia: The Love Your Body Workout
The Nia technique blends dance, aerobics, martial arts, and yoga. Created in 1983 by fitness instructors Debbie and Carlos Rosas, Nia is an acronym for neuromuscular integrative action — that is, the interaction between mind and body. In contrast to the "no pain, no gain" mind-set, Nia focuses on the joy of movement. The choreography includes 52 basic moves executed at varying speeds and in different styles, including muscle-warming stances, heart-pumping karate kicks, free movement that encourages emotional expression, and poses that stretch, balance, and align the body. Nia classes are taught for all ages and fitness levels.
For more information or to find a class, go to nnianow.com
Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2008.

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