Nia: The Dance Within

story by Emily Beenen
photos by Kate Russell

The day before Valentine’s Day, I attended my first Nia (pronounced knee-ah) class in Albuquerque at Studio Sway in the Nob Hill area.  I’d never heard of this type of exercise before, but read the following excerpt on

“Nia is a path to condition, heal and express yourself through movement and sensation. A dynamic blend of dance arts, martial arts and healing arts, Nia revolutionized the face of fitness in 1983, and has since changed millions of lives and bodies across the globe. Balancing technical precision with free-form expression, Nia brings the body, mind, emotions and spirit to optimum health through music, movement and self-expression, guided by the sensation of Pleasure.” Yeesh.  Guided by the sensation of Pleasure? The italics and capitalization worried me.

Erin Damour, the instructor for the introductory class, gave an all-teeth smile and welcomed me with much enthusiasm to my first class. I’m not trying to spoil anything for you here, but there’s a whole lot of enthusiasm in the Nia community. I was soon joined in the studio by the tall and sparkly twenty-three year-old Mallory, her equally hot mom Marlyne, along with Ellen and Margot, two rather spry women in their late fifties. Margot must have noticed my concern, particularly when Erin mentioned they would be combining two classic Nia routines, “Sexy” and “Passion,” in honor of el Dia de Amor. “Is this your first time?” she asked. Was it that obvious?  “I’ve been going to classes regularly for two years and I absolutely love it,” she shared eagerly. “This is the kind of exercise that I never have to make myself go to. I get to dance for an hour!” I like to dance, I thought. I’ve been taking yoga for years, so I clearly enjoy the healing arts, and though I’ve never participated in martial arts, I certainly have a healthy respect for them. Why was I feeling all prudish and skeptical?

The music started and we began to move. Throughout the class, we cha cha cha-ed, punched, kicked, and sashayed our hips moving them “like a smile,” all the while Erin murmured, “Gorgeous, just gorgeous,” into her headset between relaying the next combination of steps. For each song, we were encouraged to participate at whatever intensity level made us comfortable while Erin demonstrated what level one, two and three participation might look like. When I spoke with her after class she noted, “One thing we try to encourage our students to do is be connected to the physical sensations in your body–and that can be a practice in and of itself. You move in your body’s way.  We encourage people to be kind to themselves about that process rather than feel like they have to look just like the instructor right away.” It was an affirming afterthought, because admittedly I felt pretty goofy during the class. Marlyne said that her daughter had been telling her since she was ten that she had no rhythm (“like Elaine from Seinfeld, Mom,” Mallory joked), but she didn’t appear the least bit embarrassed. “It makes me feel good about myself,” she said. She’d tried different things like home videos and going to the gym, but likes Nia because of the community spirit and social interaction. It was Mallory who brought her to her first class because she had gotten the Nia bug after a friend of hers made her sign up. “I like that it’s freestyle dance rather than a conforming style of dance. You’re free to do whatever you want and,” Mallory adds, “I feel comfortable in my own skin.” Huh, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if more twenty-something women felt that way about their bodies? Ellen loved the moves and the incredible variety of music chosen by the instructors. “I don’t like to exercise, but I have no problem with this,” she says. “I feel energized and relaxed at the same time. Now that’s an unusual combination!”  Turns out, Erin tells us, there’s a specific name for that feeling derived from the martial arts facet of Nia called RAW; relaxed, alert and waiting.

I also learned from Erin that Nia originally was an acronym for non impact aerobics, and that its founders, Debbie and Carlos Rosas, were former aerobics instructors who, after beginning to feel the pain of their profession, began exploring other techniques that offered the cardiovascular benefits of traditional fitness classes, but also encouraged emotional expression and engagement to nourish the mind, body and soul. Like the practice itself, the name morphed from non-impact aerobics to neuromuscular integrative action, and then simply Nia. At the recently opened Studio Nia in Santa Fe, Program Director and Instructor Holly Nastasi relates a story similar to the Rosas. “I started out in 1982 teaching aerobics–the Jane Fonda era,” she tells me in a phone interview.  After teaching for about nine years, Holly went back to school for a degree in exercise science. It was through the wellness aspect of this program that she was introduced to Nia. “I had grown quite weary of the pounding of aerobics,” she explained. “I thought there should be more pleasure involved.” She became a certified Nia instructor and shortly thereafter opened Studio Nia in Austin, Texas, to tremendous response. Eventually, Holly became one of only 16 people in the United States certified to train instructors. In search of more beautiful natural surroundings, as well as cooler temperatures, she moved to Santa Fe in 2002. In Nia, she has found her “dancer spirit” and explained how Nia has been integral to her physical healing. “I was pretty beat up.  [Because of] running and weight training I had chronic neck, ankle and knee pain. I’m 55-years-old and I move better now than I did at 40.” Nia has also guided her emotional healing. “In my personal relationships,” she says, “it has helped manage depression, helped me raise teenage boys as a single mom, leave a marriage, find a new partner and start a new life.”

Because all of my interactions thus far were with women, I began to surmise that Nia was a woman thing. “There are many men instructors,” Holly explained, “we’re just trained differently in our Western culture–women are more inclined toward group activities and men competitive ones.”  The Nia program was designed to balance the feminine and masculine. Nia teaches us that we have bodies designed for the balance and fusion of both. We can move in curves, as well as sharp, linear ways.

She suggested I speak to Darren, an avid Nia student of two years who had earned his White Belt (the first of five). He, too, assumed at first it was a women’s-only space and was worried about invading the sanctity of that space, but found that it was quite the opposite. “The women loved that I was there. I felt very welcome, and after two or three classes, all of my awkward moments dissolved.”  After that, it was game on for Darren. He’s been going to three or four classes a week because, he says, “It was the first time I felt comfortable in my body. I noticed how I moved in my body, in my life, doing activities. There was just such an ease that wasn’t there before.” Additionally, movement in the class has helped him cope with the lethargy and grief brought on by the death of his mother. He’s really advocating for other guys to show up because it is an amazing workout.  Plus, he says, “It’s like when you were a kid and you didn’t care what people thought. With the Nia there’s such a playfulness and opportunity to creatively express through the body.”

“It’s not that this stuff is brand new,” Holly reiterated. “Debbie and Carlos Rosas didn’t reinvent anything.” But there seems to be an openness, a nonjudgmental quality about Nia that acknowledges all of our goofiness, our awkwardness, the ways in which we distance ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually. Nia is a meditation of sorts because you’re moving fast and you have to pay attention to your body right now. It’s a thing that has the potential to meet you wherever you are in that moment, whether it’s feeling so much emotion that you’re about to burst, wanting to interact with other like-minded people or just needing to move your body, with joy, and that’s right, Pleasure.


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