One step at a time: How this dancer can help you find a good rhythm in your life

Can't dance? No worries. Meet a teacher who shows her students how to find the joy in movement. From her lessons are practical skills that can help with everyday life, writes Christine Hennebury.

Can't dance? No worries. Meet a teacher who helps others discover joy

Elaine Dunphy founded Nia on the Rock, which holds classes that teach the joy of movement — including for those who aren't dancers. (Submitted by Elaine Dunphy)

Elaine Dunphy is always looking for joy.

That doesn't mean she ignores the challenges she faces, and she definitely doesn't avoid the work that needs to be done to make things better. Instead, she looks for joyful things to sustain her through difficult times.

One of her primary sources of joy is performing and teaching dance. In recent years, she has found particular fun in the playfulness of Nia dance.

Nia brings together a variety of movements for mind-body integration, and, for Dunphy, it brings her such consistent happiness that she has founded the Nia on the Rock group to help her bring the joy of Nia practice to others.

Nia, which was developed by Debbie Rosas and Carlos AyaRosas in the San Francisco Bay area starting in 1983, combines elements of yoga, tai chi, dance, and martial arts (including belt levels for instructors) with a goal of promoting overall well-being. While Nia is a dance practice, its focus is on participation rather than on performance.

Even if you don't consider yourself a dancer, Dunphy's approach to finding joy through dance can apply to all sorts of other life situations.

Set an intention

Dunphy's Nia classes start with a stated intention that is designed to bring a specific focus to that day's practice.

"One of the biggest things that drew me to this movement practice was that it gives you that reason to have a moment before your class starts, to think about, 'What am I trying to actually communicate here? Either with my body or my words or both?' It just sets the whole tone"

'I'm going to try to take those people on a journey'

That intention guides her class design and keeps her focused on what is important for the group she is teaching.

"If I'm teaching my wellderlies [Dunphy's weekly seniors class], the intention for the class might be stability against falling, but if I'm teaching at the women's shelter, it may be about taking your own personal power back," Dunphy said.

She finds that stating the intention for the class helps unify the group and makes each movement part of a greater whole.

Dunphy runs a 'wellderlies' class, using Nia dance techniques with older participants. This photo is from a 2019 class. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

"I just think that is probably the most important thing that I do for a class because I'm going to try to take those people on a journey."

How can you use this?

While you don't have to state your intention aloud, understanding why you are doing something can guide your decisions about how to proceed and about how much or what kind of energy to put into the project. A clear intention will help you to feel that your efforts are adding up to something and your "why" will give you clarity about your own goals and how to make sure that this project will meet them.

Your reasons for doing certain tasks don't have to meet anyone else's expectations.

For example, maybe some people sweep their front porch so it looks good; perhaps you sweep yours because it's annoying to get little rocks stuck to your feet. If you don't feel like sweeping, a reminder about how the porch looks probably won't motivate you, but a reminder about the little rocks might.

Trust your process

While there are many ways to create choreography for a performance, Dunphy relies on her inner compass to help her decide how to proceed.

Usually, she starts by listening to a wide variety of music until something draws her attention.

Dunphy: 'It has to feel good on my body. If it doesn't feel good, I don't want to do it.'

"Once that happens, it's almost like the choreography starts to write itself," Dunphy said. "My whole thing is choosing quiet time to listen. Stop lights are amazing for that because then I'll spend them flicking through stations."

Once she has found her music, she begins to add movement.

"I've got this personal size flipchart paper, and that's where I start drawing my little stick people and my ideas, and all of a sudden I'll go back to it and go, 'Wow, I'm three-quarters finished!' so I guess it is a lot of organization. It's like organized chaos, as I bring it together."

How can you use this?

While we often have a sense that there is one "right" way to do things, there is real value in recognizing that other methods are valid. If your approach helps you reach your goals without disproportional stress, then it's a good approach for the task at hand. You don't have to follow a method that is challenging and uncomfortable for you.

And it is OK  for you to use a tried-and-true approach in a new situation and make adjustments until it matches your needs and your methods.

It's good to feel good

"One of [the] most important things for me, when I'm building a choreography, is it has to feel good on my body," Dunphy said. "If it doesn't feel good, I don't want to do it, and that's sort of my mantra for my life and my dancing."

She also recommends that new dancers use the "feel good" philosophy to build their choreography skills.

Dunphy likes to find inspiration around her for her work with movement. (Submitted by Elaine Dunphy)

"If you're new to choreography, you have to really pick, maybe, your top five favourite moves so you're working with something that already feels comfortable on your body," Dunphy said. "When you're doing something for your own pleasure and your own joy, then it really has to feel good on your body."

How can you use this?

A lot of the discussion about learning new things tends to be framed in terms of challenge, struggle and effort, but that is only part of the story. We don't want to get caught up in putting in effort for the sake of looking/feeling like we are working hard. We want our efforts to be meaningful and to be useful to us.

If we start by figuring out what methods and approaches feel good to us, we will be encouraged to keep going and we will enjoy the challenges involved in learning.

This doesn't mean that we follow every whim nor that we give up when things are difficult. It means that we start by paying attention to what our bodies and our emotions tell us and we consider that information in our decisions about our work.

Seeking joy

Dunphy has made a conscious decision to always seek joy in her life. She is not in denial about life's frustrations but she is committed to finding the bright spots that make it easier to carry on in challenging times.

'Joy' is a theme in much of Dunphy's work. (Submitted by Elaine Dunphy)

"I used to worry that people would think that I was just this little joy fairy, that everything was good, that I was always happy, but it is a choice," Dunphy said. "Life is not always joyful and sometimes there are crappy days or sickness in your family or something not going well with someone that you really really close to. Some days I have to dig really deeply to try and find something that's a little joyful."

For Dunphy, it is worth the effort though.

"I do it for my own mental health more than anything because it's like that little glimmer of hope — it's more important than anything. If you're having a great day, joy is pretty easy to come by, you don't have to think too much about it. But on the darker days, that's when the focus on joy is most important for me."

How can you use this?

As Dunphy says, choosing joy is not about pretending that there are no challenges in your life. Instead, it is about choosing your focus and looking for the things that matter to you — finding small ways to add to your sense of well-being.

If you commit to taking care of yourself, to finding the little things that bring you ease or increase your happiness, you will find extra strength in challenging times. You will be able to take a few moments to recharge — with joy, with hope, with energy, with whatever helps you to feel like yourself.

This isn't about ignoring the negative parts of your days; it's about noticing the positive things that help you.

Finding your rhythm

You don't have to be on a dance floor to see how Dunphy's approach to her work could help you find a good rhythm for your days.

By understanding why you are undertaking the tasks at hand, trusting your process, deciding to feel good and, mostly importantly, by seeking joy, you will add ease and fun to your life — one step at a time.

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