I was never much of a dancer. Growing up, I had a series of failed attempts at dance class. Each time I was embarrassingly bad at following the moves. I even had to let go of my dream of doing musical theatre because I knew that I was that bad at dancing. I was also was never quite comfortable with the way my body looked in the mirror. High school dances didn’t exactly rehabilitate my image of myself, or of this form of movement. There’s nothing quite like shaking your butt up against some guy with one eye trying not to look at your teachers (who are standing giggling at the edge of the ballroom), and the other eye constantly checking to make sure that the “no grinding police” aren’t anywhere in the vicinity.
College dances were a little more free flow’n (or at least a little less sober). Still I found that I didn’t need alcohol to have experiences where I felt my body blissfully release into the music. Senior year, my best friend Wes and I would frequently go out just to dance, hardly bothering to notice the couples hooking up just inches away. I was finding myself enjoying dancing so much that I actually willingly signed up for a modern dance class senior year. But I resented that the movement form didn’t always feel good, and I made a point of pledging my allegiance to yoga, which always felt good. When I sprained my wrist in class just before finals week, I saw it largely as an act of resistance on my body’s part. I did however continue to enjoy dance parties, but I didn’t exactly see them as experiences that would always be abundant in my post-college life.
So I wasn’t exactly envisioning that I would fall completely head over heals in love with dancing. It was at the anti-college—a holistic health center frequented mainly by older people—that I tried my first Nia class. Nia, self-described as “a sensory-based movement class that draws from martial arts, dance arts, and healing arts,” differs in many ways from your typical dance class. Very little emphasis is put on following the exact movements and in fact, a portion of the class always includes free dancing. The classes are taken barefoot and all of it is centered around moving in a way that feels good; instructors frequently give options for different agility and aerobic levels. The other day, at the beginning of class, the instructor even asked us to take note of our current energy level before we started dancing. A stark contrast to the typical high-intensity dance or fitness class, each Nia class is designed to allow each person give what their body is able to give that day.
The experience of dancing among all those different bodies, in their various sizes, ages, genders, and physical abilities, could not be more different than the high school dance. Participants in Nia classes typically spend very little time thinking about how they look and, as a result, there’s a lot of smiling, noise-making, and even interacting; instructors will often encourage us to dance around the room and engage with others. Other times, we might spend a whole song dancing together in a circle. This openness transcends the formal dance class; I have met dozens of lovely people before or after Nia, several of whom I now consider friends.
Nia has not made me love yoga any less and I don’t see any real utility in comparing the movement forms. But I do believe that dance has a unique capacity to induce joy. There’s a reason that people across time and cultures have always danced. Underneath our struggles, underneath the thoughts that lock us in our heads, that keep us from truly connecting with others, lives our open hearts and a natural love of life. Time and time again, I have felt an indescribable sense of happiness and freedom well within me when I dance. I no longer fear my body in the mirror. I feel overflowing with love for myself, others and life itself.
I really have trouble believing that anyone doesn’t dance or can’t dance. As I struggle to express this sentiment, I notice that a dance group has started to perform at the park where I am currently writing. The back of the dancer’s shirts read “Free Body Project: Move For Freedom” and I soon learn that it’s a group of both professional dancers and survivors of human trafficking who use dance as activism to speak out against modern day slavery. One of the female dancers has no limbs; her arms end at the elbows and her legs are a wad of dark, knotted flesh just below the hips. Yet her body moves beautifully in sync within this rest of the group. I am rather in awe of the coincidence (or is it even a coincidence?) It’s almost as if the “Free Body Project” was sent to the park where I was writing to affirm my message: every body can dance. Everybody can experience freedom through dance. And we don’t even need a class like Nia to do it. Our beat is the rhythm of our heart. Our music is our blood and our breathe. Our movement comes from the soul.
hips roll round and round
chest bump’n, booty shake’n
bodies move’n, groove’n
to the music, makes me wonder
how we ever got to think’n
that we weren’t no good at dance’n
that we didn’t need no release’n
how we ever could forget
our heart’s own very rhythm, the live’n
breath’n essence of us all