conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Embrace your inner self

Photos by Matt Haas

October  2015

Nia dance classes attract a variety of age groups and ability levels.

There is nothing quite like breaking you out of your comfort zone than finding yourself prancing around a studio, fluttering your fingers, being told to embrace your "inner butterfly."

That was precisely the impasse I found myself in one recent Saturday morning. While my immediate reaction was to politely decline the puerile request, I knew I had a job to do. My editor, Amy, had given me clear directive ó to experience the art of Nia dance, firsthand ó and bring back my tale to share with our readers. Shouldering that intimidating responsibility, I swallowed my pride, thrust my jazz hands out to the side and flitted on. Natch.

Before I trekked to Core/El Centro at 130 W. Bruce St. to partake in the class, I gave myself just one rule: no research. I didnít have a clue what Nia dance was, and I didnít want to carry any presagements into the studio. Naturally, I began fretting about walking into an ancient New Age ritual. In a fit of anxiety the night before, I emailed the classí instructor, Barb Wesson, who first brought Nia dance to Wisconsin in 1997.

"What shall I wear to class?" I asked, hoping her answer would lend me a hint. "Something you can sweat in," she replied. Clearly, I was on my own.

As students gathered outside of the studio, I introduced myself and tried to gauge their conversations for clues. Before Wesson calls everyone into the studio, one woman hushedly raves: "Nia gets me out of my head and into my body."

Thatís exactly what Nia is all about. The fusion fitness class combines dance, martial arts and healing arts into 52 simple steps. Performed barefoot, the dance form centers on low-impact and "mindful movement" and can be adapted for a variety of body types, abilities and age ó in fact, most of classí participants during my visit are over the age of 50.

While we begin the class with slow, purposeful stretches and body rolls ó this dayís lesson is about connecting to our bones ó we quickly transform into a mix of salsa, tíai chi, yoga ó you name it ó grooving all the while to an eclectically cool array of New Age Electronica jams.

In between moves, Wesson instructs us to release stress tension through vocalization. We coo like kookaburras as we wiggle and let out exasperated sighs for "drama." After my initial hesitation with the whole butterfly experience, I finally feel myself letting go.

Much to my surprise, it doesnít take long for me to break a sweat. By the end of the hour-long class, Iím beat ó and can scarcely imagine teaching 12 of these classes a week like Wesson.

After class, Wesson and I sit down to talk. She says she discovered Nia while working as a weight management counselor and hasnít returned to step aerobics since. I ask her if people misconstrue Nia dance as a hippie pursuit. She laughs.

"Itís not New Age ó itís just about stopping people from hurting their bodies when they workout." During the days of Jane Fonda, she explains, working out was all about pushing bodies to the limit and high impact. Nia seeks to provide the same health benefits without all of the strain. In fact, in addition to providing cardio, Nia offers a natural approach to everything from stress, to arthritis, to brain health.

"Thereís this alchemy to Nia," Barb says. "This thing happens. Itís based on ancient concepts, so itís not new, but it brings about mindfulness, consciousness and is truly accessible to everybody. Thatís what I like seeing: the athletes with the grandmas."

So, what does "Nia" mean, anyway?

"Well, before it lived on as an acronym: ĎNeuromuscular Integrative Action,í" laughs Barb. "Now, we just use the Swahili meaning: ĎWith purpose.í"

I think Iíll just take Nia dance for what it is: a little bit weird ó and a whole lotta fun.



This story ran in the October 2015 issue of: