The term “peak experience” was popularized by Abraham Maslow, he of the famous Hierarchy of Needs. If you look it up on Wikipedia you find that a peak experience “tends to be uplifting and ego-transcending; it releases creative energies; it affirms the meaning and value of existence; it gives a sense of purpose to the individual; it gives a feeling of integration; it leaves a permanent mark on the individual, evidently changing them for the better.”
I didn’t sign up for the Spirit of Nia event last night looking for anything that lofty. I’ve been doing Nia for over a year now, and I love it, and of course when the opportunity arose to dance with its founders, I jumped at the chance. I was a little leery of the idea of being in the studio with 45 other people (a normal Nia class tops out at around 23 where I dance), but I decided that this year is all about surpassing my limitations, and dancing for 90 minutes elbow to elbow with 45 crazy Nia types (yes, I include myself in that) would be a perfect way to do that.
Nia, for those not in the know, is a form of dance workout that combines elements of martial arts, modern and jazz dance, other movement modalities, and a splash of yoga here and there. It was created by Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas 25 years ago as a non-impact form of cardiovascular conditioning. Their goal was to create a form of exercise that was based on pleasure, not pain; eventually Nia evolved into more than just exercise, it became a philosophy of fully inhabiting the moment and loving your body. It’s completely adaptable to any level of fitness and any shape or size body–at any given class you’ll see every age, every fitness level, and every size.
There’s no “feel the burn” or “no pain no gain” in Nia; the only real way to do it wrong is by not enjoying yourself.
The Spirit of Nia tour was basically a celebration of Nia’s 25th anniversary, and a chance for students like myself to dance with the founders and hear more about their experiences creating the work and traveling among the community. The event was a half-hour talk and a 90 minute session split between Debbie and Carlos, both of whom are flat-out incredible teachers with an energy and enthusiasm that draws everyone in the room into their web and spins out something greater than the sum of its dancers. The routine they brought was made up of portions of others, combined pretty seamlessly (I’m sure they’ve had plenty of practice, as Austin was the last of a 15 city tour), so most of the music I was already familiar with as well as many of the moves. Carlos in particular likes to ramp things up intensity-wise, and both brought some choreography I’d not seen yet in a class, which was challenging but a lot of fun for a dance geek like me.
It’s difficult to describe the experience beyond that, however. I can’t just go through the evening song by song and talk about the wild tribal energy that caught us all up, or the way Debbie and Carlos managed that energy with such deft hands that it looked effortless. I can’t really relate with any sort of precision how dozens of dancers waving their arms and whooping and hollering created something that could only really be described as a Nia-gasm.
I can’t really write about any of it without sounding kind of fluffy and, well, high as a kite, because that’s exactly how I felt afterward. I certainly can’t write about the teddy bears without giggling myself. (Adorable souvenir, not creepy prop.)
What I can say is that Maslow was absolutely right, and that in all my years practicing Wicca I never once had a ritual do to me what the Spirit of Nia event did last night. Switches in my head and body clicked that had never clicked before. I worked my body harder than I ever have in my life, and I sweated more than I ever have, and every drop of sweat was its own baptism.
I never, ever wanted it to end. And while the choreography was challenging, not once did I trip up, because I was so far into it that I dissolved into nothing but motion, music, and joy.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way, although there were plenty of people who just thought it was a good time (or possibly had an awful time; the cool thing about Nia is that everyone has a different experience, and ten people doing the same routine will come away with something different).
I doubt that there were a lot of people who got behind the wheel of their cars and started weeping, however. I was crying and laughing the whole way home while drumming on my steering wheel to P!nk’s most recent CD. I’ve always been interested in one day teaching Nia, but last night I kept thinking, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Then I went home and cleaned the cat box, because that’s how peak experiences work: after the ecstasy, the kitty litter.
I named my teddy bear Maslow, by the way.
I dance at NiaSpace, the studio here in Austin, owned by Nia black belt and all-around awesome teacher Donna Starnes.
Here’s a video introduction to Nia for those who have never heard of it or want to see what it’s like: