"I Danced My Way to Self-Acceptance"

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

By Jan Jarboe Russell
Photograph: iStock

I grew up in a Southern Baptist home where dancing was prohibited. In the winter of 1957, I was 6 years old, one of those kids CBS tried to protect by shooting Elvis Presley only from the waist up for fear that the sight of his gyrating pelvis on The Ed Sullivan Show would overstimulate what were euphemistically called our physical impulses. CBS need not have worried about me. Preacher after preacher had told me that my body was a vessel for the glory of God. I believed them, and I came to see my body as something to be despised, a mere suitcase that carried my brain, my spirit — and all my dangerous emotions.
I remember a Friday night in sixth grade when most of my friends went to the Methodist church for a sock hop. I spent the evening on the back porch, staring at the stars and begging God to let me live my life free of bodily concerns. Instead of feeling deprived, I felt morally superior.
Today I look back at that overly pious 13-year-old who longed for a disembodied life, and I think: Be careful what you pray for. The year after the sock hop, I was unprepared when one hot afternoon I started my menstrual cycle. The sight of my blood was terrifying. I thought I was dying. My mother assured me I was not, but her explanation was not comforting. "Every month?" I asked plaintively. "This thing will happen to me every month?" Now my body was unfathomable.
As a young woman, I avoided not only unpleasant sensations, such as jittery nerves from too much caffeine, but also pleasurable ones — even those as simple as deep, slow breaths. Denied the respect it deserved, my body slowly extracted its own revenge — mysterious aches and pains, a punitive relationship to food, cyclical dieting, shame about sex, and constant weariness.
I married at 30, and not long after that my gynecologist discovered large fibroid tumors in my uterus. Five surgeries later, I came to terms with the fact that I would be unable to bear children — or, at least, I intellectually came to terms with it. My husband and I adopted a baby girl in 1984 and a boy in 1987. I have loved my life as a mother. But secretly, I felt branded by the harsh biblical term for infertile women: barren.
My husband and I split up shortly before my 43rd birthday. Deep in a post-divorce funk, I complained to my friend Naomi Shihab Nye, who is a poet, about feeling depressed and out of sorts. Naomi invited me to try Nia, a type of exercise that incorporates jazz, modern, and Duncan (spontaneous) dance, along with yoga moves and blocks and kicks from martial arts. "I think I love Nia so much because I feel my body and spirit humming together in harmony," Naomi told me. "Nia always clicks my heart right back into my body and makes my body snap back to happiness. There’s a fluency in it that feels like language, like silence, like music, like breath."
Just before this conversation, I’d had a dream in which I was standing in front of a dark closet. I opened the door and found a skeleton inside. To my surprise, the skeleton was shimmying and shaking like a very happy hula girl. So when Naomi made her suggestion, I was open to it.
Waiting for my first class to start, I looked around and saw a lot of middle-aged women, none of them ideal physical specimens and a few as ungainly as I was. Instantly I relaxed, thankful that this would not be a competition. The teacher said that dance is one of the few tangible ways we can change our mood and improve ourselves. Then she added, "Only those who need this work are driven to it."
I felt certain that I would bend stiffly and sway as if stricken. But when the music began, I let my legs go loose and dropped my shoulders, and in that moment, the skeleton in the closet, the one I had buried in childhood, came alive. By the end of that first class, I was tired and shiny with sweat, but I felt the hum of happiness, and I knew: This is for me.
Instead of working out to burn calories and physically exhaust myself, I started moving for sheer pleasure. The process of physical and emotional self-discovery, of surrendering my masochistic, shame-filled attitude about my body, had begun.

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