new_health (2006-05)

Grace Under Nia

For dancers with one left foot or two

by Wendy C. Smith

I am not a dancer. I might be a Pisces, and I might love to dance, but I have the grace, agility and coordination of a beached tuna. I can’t follow an aerobics class. I’m the one going left when everyone is going right.

I can’t really follow any type of exercise where the instructor says, “Just do this,” and then shuffles off a series of foot movements that I am: 1.) supposed to follow; and 2.) remember. In fact, my ballet career lasted about four months before the teacher “suggested” to my mother that another type of creative expression might better suit my, uh, natural gifts. Oh, the trauma.

But I digress. I have this phobia about exercise classes with dance moves. (And, yes, I am singularly responsible for the six-person pile-up in Salsercise last week.) When I heard about Nia, my first thought was, “That’s weird enough to be fun,” followed immediately by, “There’s no way.”

Nia was described to me as dancing around pretending to be a cat. Someone else told me it was the loudest exercise class they’d ever heard. I could sense the impending disaster. I implored one of my more outgoing friends (I confess, my most outgoing friend) to go to this class with me and, to my surprise, we not only survived, but we actually had a blast.

Contrary to the rumors, Nia (pronounced Nee-ah) is an exercise discipline that combines aerobic activity with martial arts and dance. It’s an expressive type of workout where people are encouraged to make noises and do their own thing (to a certain degree) within the structure of the choreographed movement of the class. It’s not pretending anything; it’s just being in the moment with body, mind, spirit

When I walked in, the instructor, Karen Nolt, was sitting on the floor chatting with a regular. She immediately introduced herself and asked my name. It seemed important to her that all the students in the class were introduced and felt welcome. My friend came in a bit late, and Karen stopped the class to meet and introduce her. The class had very friendly atmosphere, a feeling fueled by Karen’s effervescent personality. She’s a very fit and energetic woman with wild, spiky hair and who moves gracefully like a dancer, which she is. Her energy is infectious—quite important when asking people to let go and be in the moment.

Karen told us that Nia has stood for various things over its 20-year history. The first was Neuromuscular Integrative Action, replaced by Non-Impact Aerobics, followed with Swahili for “with purpose” to simply Nia today. Nia was created in Portland, Ore. by Carlos and Debbie Rosas in 1983. They wanted to come up with a method of aerobic exercise that was easy on the joints that they could practice for the rest of their lives. Since they came from the separate backgrounds of dance and martial arts and met in aerobics class, the blend of styles was a natural evolution.

Karen discovered Nia a few years ago when she decided to return to teaching Jazzercise after a hiatus of several years. Her children discouraged her, saying she should find something “more her age” to teach. While exploring the options, she discovered Nia and thought it spoke to her. As a trained dancer, the choreographed movements and the creative aspects were just what she was looking for.

Interpretation is greatly encouraged, as is making noise. Her process was to show us the moves, put on the music and go through it. There were two songs she said we’d figure out on our own, and we did. In addition, there was also a freestyle movement piece during which we could move as we wanted. My favorite moment was when she led us to the beach. It’s hard to explain, but we went to a beach party in our heads—walked down the beach, danced by the fire and swam in the ocean. Fun stuff. By the end of class, I had gotten a decent workout and had had a great time. And my friend had turned into an improvisational dance-aholic.      

Karen says Nia allows a person to experience the expressiveness of dance, the power of martial arts and the wisdom of the healing arts. Not bad for an hour and a half. Karen can be reached at , 584-3864 or .