Health & Fitness

Find pleasure in movement with NIA

When she moved to Portland in 1995, Julia Annis was doing part-time work mopping floors at a dance studio. One day, during a break, The Evergreen State College graduate sat in on one of the studio's classes - and immediately got hooked.

The class was NIA, and the teachers were NIA co-founders Debbie and Carlos Rosas. Annis, who once had trained at Olympia's Johansen School of Ballet, went on to spend the next four years studying with the Rosas.

"The source of NIA is the joy of movement," said Annis, 38, who has launched a series of NIA classes at the downtown Olympia branch of the YMCA on Tues day and Thursday mornings. Next week, Annis will add a second series of classes Monday and Wednesday evenings.

NIA, or Neuromuscular Integrative Action, combines dance, yoga, healing and martial arts, and offers both a cardiovascular workout and a mental and spiritual lift. NIA is part of a major local resurgence of the ecstatic dance movement - or what some simply call "free dance" or "trance dance."

Though specific styles vary, free dancing most often involves people dancing barefoot, usually without a partner.

The key idea is dancers are encouraged to let their bodies go, expressing themselves through the music and releasing blocked emotions and tight muscles. For some, it can be a spiritual journey or meditation.

The music itself can be structured to produce a desired effect, such as with NIA and with the "5 Rhythms" practice popularized by ecstatic and trance dance pioneer Gabrielle Roth. Alternatively, music can be eclectic, ranging from Motown to World Beat - anything that gets you moving.

"All of these events have some areas of overlapping commonality," said Joanna Cashman of Wild Grace Arts studio in downtown Olympia. "Their intention is to explore the unlimited possibilities of movement expression, and most of these venues do have some part that invites people to dance their own moves in their own way."

On Feb. 9, Wild Grace Arts will kick off a weekly Saturday night event called "Dance Yourself Free." Other groups - such as Waves dance classes at Fusion: The Integrated Body health center in downtown Olympia, and Gypsie Nation, a regional network of events and classes - offer more choices for movement expression.

Cashman said a lot of the dance groups that arose across the nation in the last few decades were spin-offs from a "Dance Free" event that started 40 years ago in Cambridge, Mass. At the time, Alison Marshak Binder organized weekly African drumming and dancing at the Commons in Cambridge. The event was "the great grandmother of the ecstatic dance movement," Cashman said.

NIA was the brainchild of the Rosas in 1983. The couple, now divorced 10 years but still partners in the NIA company, have continued to build a national NIA network, including books, teacher trainings, tapes, DVDs, clothing and a Web site,

Annis said the NIA classes have some set routines and music, but she also injects her own musical choices. For people who prefer to dance in the privacy of their homes, Annis also sells NIA DVDs, such as the recent release "Unplugged."

Whether at home in or in public, dance can set you free, she said.

"If we seek pleasure in movement," Annis said, "we grow more than if we just focus on aches and pains."

Keri Brenner writes for The Olympian. She is a licensed acupuncturist in Oregon and holds a master's degree in Oriental medicine and acupuncture from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland. Brenner is the author of "Sleep Disorders: An Alternative Guide" and a contributing editor to "Alternative Guide to Women's Health, Vols. I and II." She can be reached at 360-754-5435 or

Learn more about the expressive dance

NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action):

Julia Annis: 360-357-3075

YMCA's Olympia downtown branch: 360-357-6609, www.southsoundymca. org, NIA classes 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays or 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays (starts Jan. 28); $10 drop-in, free for members.

Dance Yourself Free (Oly Dance Freedom): 8-10 p.m. Saturdays starting Feb. 9 at Wild Grace Arts, 507 Cherry St. S.E., Olympia; sliding scale, $5 to $12; 360-754-3893.

Waves dance at Fusion: The Integrated Body, 302 Columbia St. N.W., Olympia; 360-596-9696.

Gypsie Nation: