BU News Service
CAMBRIDGE — The class begins with the dancers moving closer to the mirror and slowly stretching and wringing out their muscles.
With hushed hums and calming chords in the background, the instructor leads a series of small movements and asks the class to breathe slowly and deeply.
The group is doing a form of dance known as “NIA” or Neuromuscular Integrative Action, which includes exercises derived from dance, martial arts and healing arts such as yoga. It combines the brain and the body into a form of dance that is both therapeutic and a workout, according to Alice Heller, an NIA teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A Cambridge resident, Heller teaches at Studio 550 in Cambridgeport weekly. She grew up in Edgemont, NY, but moved to Boston in 1985. She said she loved West African dance and transitioned to NIA after a friend convinced her it aligned with the way she liked to think of dance, as more of a community experience.
“NIA is a collective form of dance. It is my responsibility to present material that is accessible to all people,” Heller said in an interview before a recent class. “That is the cornerstone of how I hold my NIA classes.”
Heller said NIA spoke to her because she wanted people to dance with her in more of a community experience than the fast-paced and individualized nature of African dance. She brings a lot of her Western African influence into her NIA classes, she said, noting she still loves to dance and teach African styles.
But NIA has been her focus for the last few years.
Debbie and Carlos Rosas created NIA in 1983 according to Steffi Retzlaff’s essay, “Fitness for the Muscle and the Mind.” A professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, Retzlaff is also NIA instructor. The core component of NIA is finding health through movement, she maintains, noting the combination of martial arts and healing arts helps the dancer find a balance between mental and physical health and can even help with disorders such as PTSD.
Mickey Taylor-Phinney, the director of dance at Boston University, teaches dance history at Boston University and understands dance as therapeutic. In fact, she has has taken NIA for several years.
“Dance reminds people of community by having people move together as the main focus,” Taylor-Phinney explained. “NIA is different from ballet, jazz, and tap because those are more about a specific technique where NIA is a contemporary version of a cultural dance form.”
Healing is a core component of NIA, Taylor-Phinney said. NIA is more about building relationships with other people than it is about the instruction from teacher to student.
Back in the Cambridge dance studio, the class escalates from soft movements to more fast-paced, higher energy dance steps about 20 minutes into session. The dancers form a circle and freely dance around themselves to the bass of Bruno Mars pop songs and then return to organized movements including heavy breaths and martial arts techniques.
Amy Meltzer is one of Heller’s regulars. She’s a mother who lives in Cambridge and says she loves working NIA into her weekly routine.
Meltzer got into NIA because she was bored of going to the gym and needed a change of pace. She wanted to incorporate a way to let go of all the stress in her life.
“It feels really important for me to go every week.” Meltzer said. “I feel like my body is reinvigorated in a safe way after NIA.”