I used to be a dancer. And sometimes, when I dance around the living room with my kids, I miss my younger dancer life deeply. So when a friend encouraged me to try Nia, a dance-y, "fusion" fitness class that draws on Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, jazz, modern dance, yoga, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais, it appealed to my inner Martha Graham.
At moments during the class I took last week — as the sun poured in the mirrored studio, and a Kate Bush-like song called "Japanese" urged me to connect with the sunrise — I did feel like a groovy dancer again. I got caught up in the easy flow and rhythmic momentum that I never, ever get plodding along the jogging path or, even worse, on the Stairmaster at the gym. And it seemed like all the other middle-aged women — from chubby to highly sculpted — who came to this class in Wellesley felt pretty groovy too.
Nia was started in 1982 by former aerobics teacher Debbie Rosas and her partner Carlos AyaRosas who yearned for a more holistic, fun and barefoot practice that would soar above the "feel the burn" gestalt of the era. Each rhythmic, flowy routine (they have names like Opal, Passion, Butterfly, Sanjana, Girls Night Out) has a specific focus, for instance listening to the music, or honing in on a certain body part — my class was about hands "the messengers of the soul" as the instructor said. The sequences started off modestly with head movements and arm undulations, then came "tail" rotations and more and soon we were gliding across the floor, doing an eclectic mix of turns, karate kicks, Sumo stances, shimmies, swimming arms and body dips. After a few missteps, the movements became fluid and suddenly I remembered how powerfully expressive a body can be. "Use pleasure as your guide," urged another instructor.
The traveling sequences evolved into "free dance" — a time to roam around the room, experiment with twisty arms and sashays and infuse a bit of personal interpretation into the mix. The cool down included floor play, where you kind of crawl and roll around the ground. And in our class at least, there were movements that involved caressing your own legs and body. Kind of nice on a Friday morning at 10 am.
Nia definitely has an Inner Goddess, self-love vibe to it. And frankly, at first it struck me as slightly crunchy and contrived (I'm a New Yorker; Inner Goddess is tough for me). But after a while I thought: here's a room full of imperfect, grown-up women dancing their hearts out. From that perspective, it's pretty cool.
Nia doesn't promise toned abs or burning 500 calories in a 60-minute class. Its aspirations are higher: "cardiovascular and whole body conditioning for your body, mind and spirit," according to the promotional materials. Not to mention "body awareness, holistic fitness, personal growth and lifestyle benefits."
In the end, Nia is neither pure dance nor pure rote exercise class.
It's more of a lovely tasting menu of moves served up to make you feel better in your body. I asked another friend, who had never heard of Nia until she took her first class and is now hooked, to describe her experience. Here's what she wrote:
I was immediately taken by the music and the movements—there is fluidity and a gracefulness that I aspired to and wanted to be a part of. I was never a dancer, but Nia makes me feel like one. I’ve only been doing Nia for 5 months and can remember the first few classes when I felt stiff and awkward until half-way through the class. Now I loosen up pretty quickly. It is also a very liberating exercise class —- not so focused on right or wrong, but just do it.
Compared to step aerobics which I did in my twenties, Nia is less about someone shouting out footwork to you and taking your pulse every 10 minutes and more about “make it your own” and “feel the music” and “let the spirit move you." NIA feels so right for my body. It doesn’t strain or stress your joints, but stretches and strengthens every part of you.
It is an empowering exercise and encourages you both to vocalize (as in karate) and to be at peace with oneself (as in yoga) and to dance. The choreography of NIA forces you to stay “in the moment” and there is a certain joy of mastery when you learn the steps. It’s the perfect exercise in that it gets you moving in a body friendly way — one that you could do into old age.
Here's where you can find a class in Boston. And for more details on the technique, here's South African Nia Instructor Zoë Katakuzinos:
This program aired on May 17, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.