When I was about 10 years old, I would put music on in our living room and create dance performances that I imagined I was doing for the Crosas, unos muy buenos amigos de Uruguay. The last time we played with the Crosas, I was about 7 years old. My sister, Sylvia, who was 5, yelled, “you run after your novio (boyfriend) and I’ll run after mine!” I remember this like it was last week. I turned beet red and ran into the house and hid behind a door for about an hour.
The Crosas, who were amongst my parents’ best friends, had 4 kids. Jorgito was a year or so older than me. Dante was a few months older than me. Monica was slightly younger than me. Gabriela, my younger sister came next in the age hierarchy at about 3 and then came Robertito about 2… too young for Gaby. So, my novio was Jorgito and Sylvia’s novio was Dante. But this was a secret, the boys did not know about our arrangement. We had all grown up together since the first baby was born and we loved each other and Sylvia and I did aspire to marry them one day.
We left Uruguay later that year, a few months after the military coup. In the mass exudous of intellectuals and people who did not want to be tortured, my family came to the United States. The Crosas moved to Venezuela. My heart was broken to leave those kids and also my first prospect for ever-lasting love.
Maybe this is what drew me to imagine them as my audience as I spun record after record. On the couch were Jorge, Dante and Monica (Robertito would always be a baby in my mind.) I would create intricate dance routines to the same music, sometimes for hours each day, and imagine them commenting on which one was more fabulous. I would actually get high from this and finish my dance sessions feeling elated and inspired. They were my muses in a sense.
Now, I was not looking for approval from my muses, I merely called them in for inspiration. I enjoyed dancing alone more than I ever enjoyed dancing in front of actual people. This is definitely one of the reasons I did not take formal dance classes. The need to feel approved of and to “do it right” took all the joy from me. I was too aware of the subtle disapproval or possible disinterest of my audience to let go and be as free as I felt when I was dancing for the rapt audience of the Crosas in my mind. And yet, all this moving and exploring with my body made me a really beautiful dancer to watch. I knew this from the feedback I got from friends who would say, “When I watch you dance I feel like I feel the music.” I knew this was a good thing. I knew it was “approval” of sorts, and also I knew that I needed to dance for something other than that.
I wonder sometimes what would have become of me if I had pursued my love of dance via traditional venues. Ballet? I did take ballet for 6 months when I was 15. I quit when I met my first boyfriend, Marc Peper, who could only hang out with me in the early evening which is when the ballet classes were held. Clearly, ballet was not captivating enough, not in small part from the sadness I felt every time my teacher told me I did not quite have a ballet body though I moved very nicely.
Marc was lead guitar in a band and I followed those guys around to all the summer gigs and danced all night long to whatever revival tunes they were playing. That was my first time really dancing in public, yet, I was also dancing for myself and for all the members of the band. My new muses who were also my friends.
Dancing for me went in two directions at this point. I would still dance alone a lot, though my muses changed with the current boyfriend or crush. This alone time was my time for me and my body and also my time to rehearse for when I went out dancing and clubbing where I did my moves for whoever I imagined was watching. At around this time, I also began dancing with others! Wow, that was big. To this day, my husband, Chad, tells me I don’t know how to follow, just how to lead. I know this is true. After so many years of dancing by myself, having a partner and especially one that had his own ideas felt really restrictive.
I developed this theory about how if I could dance with someone, if the dance between us flowed, then I could go out with them. If I could not dance with them, if they were too goofy or controlling, then no way. Just for the record, I met Chad doing contact improv and he was my favorite dance partner for a year before I even thought of him romantically. By moving my body with his, I could feel so much about his essence – but that is a story for another time.
Another aspect of partner dancing that was a little scary for me is that it felt really intimate. I felt my eyes wanting to move away from my partner’s. Moving energy together like that felt too revealing for me. I felt raw, as if they could see things in me that were my secrets. So, although I did it when I was in crowd and that was what was going on, I always kept a little emotional distance and stayed more connected to the music than to the person across from me.
Eventually I found samba and afro-brazilian dance, and barefoot boogies (places to dance where you can really do your own thing – dance with someone, dance alone but around someone, dance with everyone in the room at once, dance with just yourself….etc). And then I found Nia.
When I first came to Nia, I would imagine Carlos and Debbie, the creators or Nia, whom I have not even met yet, when I needed an audience. And then in class, there were my students. Unlike performance, where there is a sitting audience, in Nia classes, there is participation and sharing and mutual inspiration. The experience that I was creating for my students was something they were also partaking of and it felt like we were all playing together. By this time, I had fully embraced that dancing was my spiritual practice and most of the time I was dancing for my divine self and for the Goddess/God/life force. But sometimes, I still wanted someone to watch and see me.
When I actually met Debbie and Carlos, during my Blue Belt, I was ready to show them how hot I was. I was sorely disappointed when Carlos said, during our introduction, “Do not endeavor to impress us. We might be impressed, but do not make that your focus.” And I was at a loss. There was the dancing I did for me, but with my living muses in my sight, I wanted to show them how “good” I was for them. I was a young Niaphite then. Now I know that Nia is more about all that time spent alone, that when I am in front of my students or even Debbie and Carlos, what I need to do it relax into the same place I go into when I am dancing alone. I can do that now. But back then, I was so hungry for approval and proof of what I could do, that I went over the top. I went into my head and into imagining what they wanted me to do.
What a humbling moment when I was “teaching” at the Blue Belt training. The song was Fantasia by US-3. This was during the last day of the training and it was a time to show what we had learned in the past few days. Carlos stopped a few bars into the song and said, “Maria, you are not on the 1.” I though to myself – the 1, which 1? And then I got it, the 1 at the top of the bar. I was so busy wanting to make something amazing happen, I had even been listening to the music! He put the music on again and I heard the 1 and went with it. And although I was at my Blue Belt, I feel that my Nia career really began at that moment. At that moment I realized that my muse had really been the music all along. When I grabbed on to the sound that day, all my past reaching for someone outside to inspire me or see me began to disappear. It’s still fading away and I feel more free than ever.