Across the city, women are moving to a beat all their own, whether the music is made by the pounding of a traditional African drum, the clash of zills (finger cymbals), or simply the sound of their own feet pounding against a wooden floor. These women have discovered what many cultures and generations before them already knew: dancing is excellent exercise, and invigorates the body and soul.
In recent years, Seattle’s dance scene has grown exponentially — particularly in regard to so-called “alternative” dance forms like African dance, belly dancing and Nia. Each style caters to a distinct personality, but at their root they share a common thread. While traditional modes of fitness might bore or create anxiety for women, these dance forms invite students to participate in classes regardless of their body type, previous experience or personal fitness level. In doing so, they keep participants interested in achieving better health of mind and body.
A mind-body focus is especially important in African dance. This dance form has long played a cultural role in Africa, where it is used to celebrate life’s most important moments, religious rituals and rites of passage. In recent years, however, this dance form has also become particularly attractive in mainstream culture as a means of expression and exercise.
In Seattle, African dance classes take two forms. The first teaches the history behind the dances and choreographed moves based on traditional African dance. The second type of class has a more fitness-forward focus, and marries movements from African dance with modern day strength-training moves that help participants more quickly achieve their fitness goals.
Instructor Eric Wilson of CompFit offers local women an alternative to traditional exercise in his African fitness jam classes. Wilson’s classes are based around safe movement and African dances from a variety of African countries, but their main focus is helping students become conscious of their body movements and getting them to engage their core muscles.
“I’m starting with a focus of fitness and having fun. In most of the classes, teachers teach different dances for the purposes of that particular culture — for celebration, rain or growing — but I do it a little differently. I’m not teaching movements for any other particular purpose but conditioning the cardiovascular system and the skeletal system,” says Wilson.
A single high-intensity class can engage many muscle groups in the body, including the thighs, glutes, core and shoulders. Wilson also works with students to strengthen and tone muscles by including gut-busting moves like crunches and push-ups in his classes. Students will find that the classes also incorporate breathing, stretching and balancing to give them a well-rounded workout.
For those more interested in the cultural aspect of the dance and developing their spirit while achieving better health, there are a few weekly African dance classes taught by Awal Alhassan. Alhassan grew up in a dance troupe in Ghana before moving to the United States, where he now teaches classes rooted in tradition at the Velocity Dance Center downtown and at Spectrum Dance Theater in Madrona.
“The movements themselves are quite different from what most Americans, dancers or not, are used to. It teaches the body completely different movements that many people never thought their body could actually do,” says Alhassan. “And, aside from being physically beneficial, this lends a great sense of accomplishment that keeps people coming back.”
Alhassan’s classes can be challenging for first-time dancers; patience is imperative for enjoying his classes whether the participant is a dancer looking to expand her repertoire or a veteran runner looking for a supplementary activity. “Patience is so important, especially for first-time students, because the motions are completely foreign to most of their bodies,” says Alhassan “It takes time to make them theirs, and often students will not see results in the first day. Some people never come back because it seems too difficult, but the ones that do always come back smiling to say, ‘thank you so much for keeping me moving.’”
Movement is also key in belly dancing, a graceful, ancient dance form that has enjoyed a resurgence since the early ’70s. It has continued to see growth in Seattle in recent years, perhaps due to its spirit of acceptance toward all types. “Belly dancing is for women who are not necessarily 98 pounds. It’s for normal women who are voluptuous and real,” says Seattle-based instructor and performer, Zaphara. “It’s great for fuller figured women who are maybe afraid to go to an aerobics class because they look like real women.”
And yet, even real women might find themselves avoiding belly dancing because so many stereotypes surround it — the primary one being that it is primarily a dance form practiced for male enjoyment. “It’s not something that is supported by men, and it’s not a striptease. It’s for other women and you will be dancing for other women,” says Delilah of Visionary Dance Productions.
Belly dancers who get past misconceptions will enjoy classes because they are dancing for themselves, whether for pleasure or to achieve fitness goals through a fun, low-impact class. “About 99 percent of my students come for fitness,” says Zaphara. “It’s good for your back, strengthens and coordinates all your muscle groups in the spine and back, improves your posture and increases your flexibility.”
Though instructors recommend that their students start with a beginner course, they can advance to higher level classes like Delilah’s popular power belly class. “[In power belly], you’re working on your basic alignment and the class works on your core like Pilates,” she says. “We use weight belts and that builds bone density, and the fancy belly dancing also gets at endurance.”
For 35-year-old Cherie Harris, the physical benefits of taking classes with Zaphara extend far beyond achieving her fitness goals. Harris was diagnosed with structural alignment issues and signed up for belly dancing on a whim. She saw benefits in the way of decreased pain after her first session, and has since found that belly dancing delivers an excellent core workout. “After eight weeks of dance class, I got results that six months of physical therapy could not produce in terms of feeling really good and being pain free,” says Harris.
Additionally, Harris found that the classes develop camaraderie, something that Delilah finds keeps women coming back again and again. “A lot of women really are taking belly dancing to balance out their yang lifestyle when they work in a business with a lot of males. They need to spend some time with some feminine energy and as they start plugging away at classes, they start meeting people,” she says.
The community aspect is also central to Nia, a soulful, joyful form of dance developed by Carlos and Debbie Rosas in Portland, Ore., in 1983. The dance incorporates a range of movements that blend power and grace and masculine energy and feminine energy, and focuses on helping participants find health through movement. “The people that created Nia pay a lot of attention to the science of the body…it brings you into a dance experience but there is nothing technical about it. The philosophy is about movement so it helps you feel comfortable in your body,” says instructor Dara McKinley, who teaches at Nia Underground on Capitol Hill.
As a relatively new dance form, Nia often comes across as ambiguous because it combines the disciplines of dance and martial arts. “Sometimes the fact that Nia is a blend of martial arts and dance turns people away. Some people are turned off by the dance because they can’t put one foot in front of the other and some are turned off by the martial arts component,” says veteran Nia instructor Jill Pagano.
However, as word of Nia and its benefits have spread, so has women’s willingness to try it. Additionally, Seattle’s Nia scene has grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years, so most everyone can find a class in their neighborhood. “When I first started teaching Nia, there were maybe four to five classes in Seattle. Now if you go to the Nia Seattle Web site there are probably close to 50 classes a week,” says McKinley.
Every Nia class focuses on incorporating 52 basic moves in multi-dynamic and multi-directional movements. And because Nia instructors have to be certified and follow specific guidelines in teaching classes, participants find relief in the commonality of each course. The only thing that changes from location to location is the feel of the class, not the moves completed during it. “The class [feel] really depends on each teacher and each space. They each have their own focus and that’s part of the freedom of Nia,” says Pagano. “Teachers can have a physical slant, an emotional slant or a community slant within their classes.”
For Jolene Hagin, it was this combination of physical and emotional focus that has kept her practicing Nia for the last year and a half. “Nia definitely has an emotional element if one wants to connect the body with the mind, spirit and emotional aspects of ourselves. The state of dynamic ease that I’ve learned through Nia has shown up in other areas of my life as well, such as with challenges at work,” she says.
Additionally, Hagin has discovered that Nia delivers an amazing cardio and strength-building workout, and has created a new community of women to connect with. “I have met so many wonderful women since dancing Nia, women I respect and admire immensely,” she says. “It is a place where it is safe to be our true self, and seems to attract people with similar positive attitudes, those who are looking for ways to transform the physical as well as emotional aspects of ourselves.”
For each participant, the goal of the class can differ, because the overall experience of Nia depends on the individual person. “People can get a physical workout if they desire, and someone who has an illness or is recovering from something and wants to move their body holistically can stand right next to someone wanting an intense physical workout and can guide their own experience [toward a holistic one],” says Pagano.
And, like the many non-traditional forms of dance, on the fitness circuit that’s a welcome choice indeed.
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