Nia dance fitness craze uses martial arts

Last updated 11:34 30/09/2011
Stephanie DeMay
Don Scott

Nia instructor Stephanie DeMay has a brown belt in karate

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I'm a penguin and Norah Jones is belting out about New York City being such a beautiful disease.

Playing at being a cute flightless bird, then a cowboy, then a jazz dancer is just part of the experience of Nia dance. I might not be as graceful as a ballet dancer, but the idea is to have fun rather than sign up for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Like most people, I hadn't heard of this unique form of dance fitness until I was introduced to it by a personal trainer, who organised a trial class for participants in a boot camp I was attending. I had been looking for something in the way of dance, something to keep me moving that would hold my interest. One class later I was hooked, despite my lack of dance experience, which consisted mainly of ballet taken at the age of 12. I signed up for the rest of the term and now attend two classes a week.

So what's the attraction? Unlike karate (in which I have a brown belt), Nia dance is done at each person's own individual level. You listen to your body and move as much or as little as your body wants to. While everyone follows the basic dance steps and arm movements, just how much we bend or how fast we move depends totally on ourselves and our abilities. At the same time, it is just so much fun - often I'll notice other people in the class smiling while they are dancing - and our teacher Stephanie DeMay's enthusiasm is contagious.

These days I can get my feet around the jazz square, do a passable Charleston, and one- two-cha-cha-cha with the best of them. Just don't ask me to add arm movements though - my fledgling co-ordination can only cope with one thing at a time.

Deceptively low impact, Nia offers a high-powered, energetic cardio workout within a fitness programme, combining elements of jazz, modern and Duncan dance with martial arts - tai chi, tae kwon do and aikido - and yoga. It incorporates the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais (the conscious awareness of sensation) and the Alexander technique.

Nia (pronounced "nee-uh"), which used to stand for Neuromuscular Interactive Action, was first established in the United States and has been around since the early 1980s. Taught in more than 45 countries around the world, this dance and fitness programme made its way to New Zealand 13 years ago.

Founders Debbie Rosas and former tennis professional Carlos AyaRosas, at the time successful aerobics instructors, found a visit to a martial artist changed their way of thinking about movement. When the martial artist told them to "move", they were shocked to discover that, while they could perform aerobics movements, they were not as flexible as they expected themselves to be. Following this revelation, they set out to find a way of improving fitness and gaining flexibility without damaging the body. Two years of research led to the development of the holistic dance programme we know today as Nia.

The philosophy is that there is no need to use pain to change the body; exercise becomes pleasure rather than punishment. Yet as an exercise routine, Nia is a gentle, non-impact movement that is safe for the joints, effective, and, best of all, fun. Seeing "movement as medicine", it is adaptable to all ages and all levels of fitness. The focus is on flexibility, agility, stability, mobility and strength. Toned muscles are a welcome by- product, as is a better understanding of the body.

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A profound part of the programme, the music, which mostly falls into the "world" category and includes vocalists like Louis Armstrong, Moby and Norah Jones, is turned up loud, every beat inspiring a dance move.

The hour-long classes have seven cycles, starting with focus and intention. Then there is the invitation to step in, followed by the warm-up, the get-movement cycle, cooling down and finishing our movement with some FloorPlay (often yoga-like and stretching movements). The final cycle is stepping out.

We also regularly get the opportunity for FreeDance in between choreographed pieces, which allows us to experience new sensations of movement in the body. It is empowering to move around the room knowing that you're doing this only for one person - yourself.

As part of the Body Festival, Stephanie DeMay is offering introductory Nia workshops. Full details are at

- The Press

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