YDL: ‘Move Ya Body’ during National Dance Week

(Photo courtesy of Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, 2013)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Dancing frequently protects against dementia, according to one study

Right after I wrote the headline I couldn’t help but to play the song by Nina Sky. As the first commenter wrote, “If the first 10 seconds don't get you shaking your hips, you're not human.” And why not shake your hips more this week since it’s National Dance Week!

I didn’t have the urge to run or do the usual bodyweight workout on Sunday. I scrolled upon Dancing Earth’s Facebook event 10 minutes before the class started on Zoom and immediately changed my clothes. I honestly haven’t moved that quickly for a workout.

I found myself on Zoom with strangers from all over the continent ready to move on a Sunday afternoon. It was kind of invasive at first because everyone saw my living room. Ha. However, this exact thought and feeling reminded me of how dance made me feel previously: vulnerable, confident, loving everyone I moved with and loving myself fully.

With each movement that Rulan Tangen gave us virtually, I was instantly taken back to my undergrad days in Durango, Colorado, where I initially met Tangen, the artistic founding director of Dancing Earth Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations. Dancing Earth is a contemporary Indigenous dance company that supports Indigenous dance and related arts. The company is celebrating National Dance Week and Earth Day with virtual dance classes until May 3.

She made me feel 21 again. Woo! I haven’t taken an actual dance class since undergrad, hence why I had so many flashbacks during the virtual class. It’s strange because right before this pandemic, I was looking for adult dance classes and before signing up for it, I had to travel to California for work. So I said I’d wait until I came back. Now look where we are. A pandemic and dance innovation.

Tangen said something after the class that stuck with me. She said dance has been colonized. We were meant to move as human beings. She was told by dance companies that she didn’t have a dancer’s body and look where she is today. Her words reminded me of how much of an impact dance made in my life.

Frankly, dance played a huge role in my identity, and brought me another family and a sense of belonging.

Growing up my sister and I learned choreography from movies or music videos. It would take us all day but we loved it. You can say it was the original TikTok. We could’ve done powwow as kids (my mom still has my shawl). Our parents’ gave us the choice to do powwow or sports. We chose sports.

When I went to college, I made the decision to not play collegiate volleyball. It was a tough call. Part of it was because of my knee injuries in high school and I felt that academics needed to be the priority (it was what would get me a job). I had to adjust to a new life without volleyball, a sport I’ve played since my toddler years. My parents also invested in club volleyball so I could be seen by recruiters during high school. So I felt even worse.

That feeling didn’t shake in Georgia. I was unhappy. Not only being away from the community was difficult, but I wasn’t part of a team or family. I felt out of place and like I didn’t belong. (And a counselor at the school helped me figure that out.)

I transferred colleges from Emory University in Atlanta to Fort Lewis College in Colorado. I remember waiting for a class to start in Skyhawk Hall by the football field. I saw a flyer for Dance Co-Motion, the student-run dance organization, pinned to the wall. It was holding auditions that upcoming weekend. Anyone could join, beginners to advance dancers, the flyer read. I thought it would be something different to try and I loved to dance. Dancing in your car counts, right? My mom often tells me to stop dancing while driving. She’s right. (Sorry, mom!)

I mean I wanted to do something more than dance in a club as a college student. And it was something new to learn. They say college is for academics but I’ve always heard the opposite, we attend for the experiences.

Auditions came. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what the right clothes or shoes were to wera. I didn’t know anyone. We looked silly trying new moves (some club moves applied, ha). But I made a few friends, talked to people, and the choreographers were fantastic, energetic, and welcoming.

For nearly three years in college, I felt more confident than ever. I looked forward to every rehearsal. We learned hip-hop, contemporary dance, lyrical, the Irish tap dance, and this dance where we used basketballs and a staff to count. My favorite dance (pictured above): a Brazilian dance. Did I tell you I danced and ran in heels on stage!? (I can’t even wear heels now.) I also learned some ballet and was in the best shape since volleyball. I even stepped outside the box and took dance classes with the college where I paid more attention to the mechanics of dance and how to develop choreography. At my peak I was rehearsing approximately eight to ten hours a week. More than a usual workout. Soreness happened in areas of my body that weren’t typically sore, too.

It paid off because stage fright wasn’t terrifying but energizing and exciting. We would learn dances from choreographers for an entire semester that lead to the final performance before finals week (or during for some). Another favorite part of dance for me! We had rehearsals, dress rehearsals, tech rehearsals, and I just saw how an entire performance came together. Dance lingo became familiar and due to another knee injury (I wasn’t dancing in heels), I was the stage manager for a spring performance.

If there ever was an embarrassing moment, it’d be slappin’ my thighs in front of my family on stage during our jingle bells number from Mean Girls. Oy. On that note, I loved dance so much that I convinced my sister to join. We choreographed one dance together!

Strangely enough I noticed dance improved my memory, focus and concentration. And since I was studying athletic training at the time, which is lots of medicine, I could comprehend difficult concepts easier. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine backs this up too. This study followed senior citizens, ages 75 and older, for 21 years. Their goal was to see what physical or mental activities influenced mental acuity, which is memory, focus, concentration and understanding.

Some mental activities they used were reading books, writing, crossword puzzles, playing cards, and musical instruments. Physical activities included swimming, riding a bike, tennis, golf, walking, housework, and dancing. Researchers found that dancing frequently was the only physical activity that protected against dementia.

They don’t necessarily go into the why. But from my experience, dance has all the mental, emotional, physical, musical engaged at once. There’s also the memorization of something new which creates new neural pathways in our brain.

The best parts about becoming part of this dance world in college: No one judged you, everyone loved to dance, everyone became your hype person, and you built a family.

I’m still connected with many of these dancers today. One talented individual for example is Natalie Benally, Diné, who is hosting many virtual dance classes on Zoom this week as part of Dancing Earth’s celebration! (I really tried to get this up in time for her class yesterday, but news happens.)

During her hip-hop class last night, I couldn’t help but to smile and laugh and let the music take over my body. Like she said, bring that positive energy in!

She’ll have a class on Thursday called “Hozho in Motion.” A class “created it to help people recenter, refocus and take time to take care of themselves holistically especially in this time of hardship and struggle,” she said. The class focuses on the Diné perspective of Dancing Earth’s methodology of movement.

“I also instruct and share Diné language as well like counting in Diné rather than in English. I think it’s a means to honor my culture in the work that I do with dance and shows the unique diversity Dancing Earth does in dance,” she said. “It also is based on using movement to heal, to persevere, to honor and to pray. Something we, as Indigenous peoples, have always done and continue to do.”

Rosalie Jones, a leader in Native modern dance and drama, held a lecture this morning and shared memories of her parents and grandparents on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.

Tangen said they host classes “with courage to move beyond our own panic and sense of scarcity with 13 gigs canceled across the US and 2 counties which means no paid work, but we looked at what do he HAVE as resources, what can we give, what can we offer at this time.”

“We have the healing power of movement, to be able to uplift and support the people at this time, and reconnect us with the beyond human world outside our boxes of isolation,” she said.

So join their Zoom classes, find other online dance classes, or have your own dance party at home! This also gives me an excuse to learn the boy-band choreography on TikTok (the only thing that pushed me to join). 

IF YOU CHOOSE TO DANCE…

What: Join Dancing Earth’s National Dance Week
Where: See their calendar of events for the dates and times
When: Until May 3
How: Zoom

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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