Photo by Jay Paul
Marybeth Grinnan leads a Nia class at ACAC Midlothian.
I first heard about Nia from my massage therapist. As I visited with Sarah weekly to submit to intense sessions of deep tissue massage to relieve pain brought on by running and cycling, I was intrigued as she described Nia, a group dance class that combines elements of martial arts, dance and healing arts such as yoga in a gentle, whole-body practice. When I was asked to write about a dance-based fitness class, I eagerly volunteered to try Nia.
What I experienced during the four classes I tried at ACAC Short Pump and Midlothian is difficult to describe. Yes, I broke a sweat, learned how to do moves such as the “belly button munch” and found myself free-dancing around an exercise studio as if I were letting loose in the privacy of my home. But unlike other fitness classes, Nia requires a total loss of inhibition, judgment and ego. Once I surrendered and let myself go with the Nia flow, I found it to be not only liberating but fun. After class, I felt energized and relaxed. And that’s the whole point.
Marybeth Grinnan, a Nia black belt who began teaching the first Nia classes in Richmond about seven years ago, says one must try Nia to understand it. “It is all about how you feel,” she explains. “You can’t watch it and figure it out. You just need to do it.”
Nia was created by fitness instructors Carlos and Debbie Rosas in the mid-1980s in the midst of the aerobics craze as an alternative to the “no pain, no gain” ethos. According to Nia Technique Inc., “Nia fitness is based on the idea that exercise should feel good inside and out.”
A typical Nia class runs 60 minutes and incorporates simple choreography based on 52 moves designed to exercise all the joints and muscles in the body. Music ranges from slow and ethereal to pounding tribal beats. The instructor leads routines with names like “Mystere,” “Solar Dog” and Global Unity.” Participants dance barefoot wearing anything from yoga pants to colorful, flowy dance apparel. I only saw one man in the four classes I attended — the participants were women mostly in the 40 to 60 age range. At the end of class, the group forms a close circle and is invited to look around at the other members to “connect through the eyes.”
Grinnan discovered Nia while living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She had just given birth to her second child and was looking for a way to get back into shape, but did not like to work out. “We attract a lot of people who don’t like other forms of exercise,” she says. “They keep coming because it’s fun and they want to dance. There is no judgment here.”
For me, that was the best part of Nia. The dancing was surprisingly enjoyable and the choreography repetitive and easy to follow, albeit a little bit … weird. In one dance, we had to pretend we were wearing a cape (visual cues are a big part of Nia); in another we did a “monster walk.” We made angry faces, shouted “No!” and bounced around the room. It was childlike, and for a perpetually overscheduled fortysomething, it was an awesome break from reality and a respite from running miles on the road.
“People aren’t used to being guided by pleasure in an exercise class,” Grinnan says. “We provide a space for people to be themselves, to move and express themselves.”