By the end of my first dance class with Kerry Ann King, I was hooked. Hooked on Nia—a movement practice integrating dance, martial arts, and healing methods—and hooked on Kerry Ann’s particular style of it. The theory of Nia is that it uses movements that work with the body’s natural mechanics to create a mind-body connection; in my Nia class, full of fit, active women, classes resemble anything from a rave to an exuberant ritual, made all the more exuberant by Kerry Ann’s creative leadership. Example: For a Halloween class, the cardiovascular push was to the decidedly non-aerobic Exorcist theme, in which we pretended to be scurrying up the stairs to heal a head-on-backward Linda Blair. It was silly, sure, but that was part of the point: Nia has no room for the lack of presence self-consciousness invites. I was eager to talk with Kerry Ann about the connection between beauty and a state of flow, beauty and the Oedipal complex, ethnic identity and presenting one’s self authentically, and on whether self-acceptance can go too far. In her own words:
On the Body of a Dancer
I was always a good dancer, but not built for ballet, aesthetically or physically. I’m not naturally turned out, I don’t have a natural arch in my foot--I spent hours as a child with my mother trying to make arches in my feet. And then I got big boobs! When I was 14 I was taking classes with the Joffrey Ballet School and I was getting a lot of attention from my teachers, but I wasn’t being cast. I decided to ask why because I wanted to know what my future was. My teacher said if I wanted to be a ballerina, I would have to have breast reduction surgery, and I’d have to lose another 10 pounds. I was heartbroken, but I was not going to do that. I was not going to alter my body, even though I loved ballet so much. That was a turning point for me in terms of thinking about beauty. As disappointed as I was that I didn’t meet the aesthetic, I wasn’t going to completely succumb to what was being asked of me. Some of that resistance is just genetic: My mom was an active feminist, my great-grandfather—you know the movie Matewan? He was one of those striking coal miners. I see it in my kids now too.
I went to my first Nia class about six months after my twins were born. I was weak and out of shape, and to be frank, it sounded like it would be easy. But when we started moving what hooked me was that I got the joy I’d always in had dancing--without feeling like I didn’t “look right.” That’s one of the benefits of Nia. You’re supposed to do the technique correctly, but there’s a baseline acknowledgement that our bodies behave differently. Nia allows everyone to have an experience of just doing it.
On Babies and the Body
I know women whose experience of pregnancy and mothering is that they feel their body somehow gets ruined by it. It feels like there’s this desire to not change: “I’m not going to let my body change, I’m not going to let my life change. I’m not gonna let this in.” It’s a way of keeping at bay all the anxiety about the body that comes with having another person inside you. Because it’s freaky! There’s someone inside you! But for me, embracing it made it all easier and left me in a better position on the back end. After I got through the ten years when I was either pregnant or nursing all the time—someone was always using my body for something they needed—I came out stronger, happier, and actually feeling more attractive.
My boys love me in a different way than my girls do. There were a few things about which Freud was correct, and the Oedipal crisis is one of them! They tell me I’m pretty, and they really, truly believe it. I have a lot of loose skin on my belly, and people say to me, “Oh, your abs are so tight, why don’t you get that skin taken away?” I think about it and then I’m like, Am I still me if I do that? And then my sons look at my belly and say, “We love your belly, Mommy! Your wrinkles make a heart!” And, you know, they do! Sons can be very powerful tools for making a woman feel beautiful.
On Observing Beauty in Action
I think for a lot of women, beauty is a tool. We want to attract a mate by being beautiful, or we want to make other women feel a certain way about us—like us, envy us. We’re frequently using it to get something in the world. When you’re constantly in that mind-set, you’re constantly thinking about what someone else is seeing when they look at you. You’re putting yourself in someone else’s mind instead of being in your own: “Does he think I look hot? Does she like my jacket?” Asking what everyone else is thinking is the quintessence of not being in the moment. Whereas when you settle in and feel physically satisfied yourself, instead of thinking, “Is he going to ask for my number?” you become that girl who’s thinking, “Do I like him?” People who are in themselves and in the moment are more attractive. They get more positive attention.
Part of being able to be more in the moment, for me, was age. I wasn’t always comfortable in my body. But now I know its flaws, and I know its advantages, and I’m more willing to take it as it comes. And it’s very powerful for me to spend my time looking at women in my classes, seeing them express themselves and look beautiful. It helps me form my sense of myself and the way I do my work. I teach in Chinatown, and there will be certain Nia movements that are also in tai chi, and lot of my students in that class have been studying tai chi for years at the senior center. I remember giving them an instruction and mentioning something about making your hands into butterflies, and they all did this certain move at the same time. They were beautiful—incredibly so. Also, being around women who are older has shown me that older women can still be sexy. They totally get into all the shimmying! We become attached to the idea that we’re only going to be sexual and beautiful when we’re young, and that adds a veneer of desperation to the idea of staying young, of not getting wrinkles. So for me to see all these women when they’re older, and they’re beautiful and sexy, has been an important learning experience.
On The Power of Being Critical
Sometimes we’re too quick to want to entirely kill off any bit of negative self-image. Every so often I’ll feel guilty about something I’ve done as a mother, that I haven’t lived up to my own standards. But that’s what keeps me trying, that feeling that I’ve failed at something. If you’ve failed, you’re kind of supposed to feel like you’ve failed! We have to learn the difference between knowing you could have done better, and berating yourself about it and feeling ashamed. I went to a Nia workshop and they were photographing everyone. I hadn’t waxed my eyebrows in weeks, and I was wearing a cotton shirt that was dark but not dark enough, so you could see how much I was sweating. They’re nice photos of me, but, you know, I could have looked a little nicer! There’s a difference between being like, “I look so ugly in these pictures!” and saying to myself, “Okay, next time I go to this workshop I’ll know they take pictures so I can wax my brows and wear something more appropriate to being photographed.”
If someone’s unsophisticated and uneducated, we don’t say to them, “Oh, you shouldn’t worry about it! Don’t read! Just sit there all day and watch Real Housewives of Darien Connecticut!” But with physical beauty we have this idea that everyone should just accept everything. It’s not that I don’t want people to accept themselves. I just feel like we’ve gone through all of these cycles with beauty and weight and everything: “You have to be thin. Wait, no, everybody’s anorexic, we have to teach people to accept themselves. But now everybody’s obese, we have to get them to be thinner! My body’s ugly! I weigh 400 pounds and it doesn’t matter! Nothing’s okay! Anything’s okay! Nothing’s okay! Anything’s okay!” I would love it if we could get to a point where we accept who we are and try to be our best selves at the same time.
On Truth and Ethnicity
Beauty and truth are linked for me. There’s this Dave Chappelle skit where he’s brought this girl home and she’s like, “Oh, give me a second while I take off my false eyelashes,” and he’s all, “Baby, you don’t need all that!” So then she’s all, “Let me take out my contacts,” and then her wig, and by the end of the skit she has one arm, one leg, and a glass eye. I kind of feel that way about altering myself to be more attractive. For me, if it lacks truth, it can’t be beautiful. I rarely wear makeup, I don’t spend a lot of time on my hair.
I feel comfortable referring to myself as beautiful. I also know that I don’t fit most people’s vision of conventional beauty. I’m not white-girl pretty. I think my race is part of why I am the way I am about being natural. My hair is a political statement: I’m not going to straighten my hair, because my hair is the thing about me that looks the most black, and I have no interest in pretending that I’m not black. Of course, because I’m so racially ambiguous, when people look at me they don’t necessarily see that. I have a friend who used to tease that I’m like a racial projective test—people see what they want to see. “Oh, I know you’re Jewish!” “You’re Egyptian, aren’t you?” My favorite one is, “What ARE you?” I’ve always wanted to say, “A Gemini,” but I can never do it. But I think that’s one of the reasons why being as natural as possible is, to me, an act of pride and self-love.