Life at the Center, by Renée Tillotson

When I mounted the 8 flights of stairs to step into Nia Technique’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon, I had no idea what a life-changing path I was embarking upon. I did not imagine then, in 2003, that I would eventually conceive of a global movement studio upon Nia’s dance floor. Nor did I realize that I would learn to access a portal of potentially endless creativity through Nia’s free dance experiences. And I had no idea how much Joy it would open me up to! At Nia HQ I experienced the Joy of Movement!

This truly magical and exquisitely beautiful place – Nia HQ – closed this month, and I want to recognize and cherish all that happened within its walls. My experiences there merely echo tens of thousands of other Nia students, teachers and trainers who changed their lives by dancing and training at Nia HQ under Nia’s co-founders: Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas. For those of you unfamiliar with the Nia technique, you can think of Nia as a body-mind-spirit practice that weaves the dance arts, martial arts and healing arts into a transformative movement experience.

As we celebrate Still & Moving Center’s “birth”, or opening, on March 18, 2011, I’m called to also called to honor the 33 years of magic at Nia HQ.

In nearly every one of the many, many teacher trainings that I took at Nia HQ, Debbie Rosas taught me something about how to use my eyes. When I arrived for my first White Belt training, the only two ways I knew how to take a Nia class were to rigidly lock my eyes intently on the teacher’s movement to reproduce it exactly, or else to turn my gaze completely inward while I free-danced, so that I was dancing in my own little bubble. Each of these two extremes shut out all the other dancers in the room – missing a lot of the Joy of community, all of us dancing together in that beautiful space. 

Debbie first taught me “soft gaze” and “looking through the windshield” as I moved. The implications of this teaching for living life in the world are huge – taking in others: what a concept! Debbie later taught all of us in the Brown Belt training to broaden our gaze through our peripheral vision. That expanded vision, together with a soft gaze, opens us to picking up subtleties and hints in the invisible world that continually surrounds us, which Carlos later introduced us to in our Nia Black Belt training.

I took one of the trainings at Nia HQ with three pregnant trainees. In my early fifties at that point, I was well past my child-bearing years. I had loved being pregnant with and giving birth to our three children. As Carlos had us freedance to a poignant piece of music, I wept that I would never again give birth to a child in this lifetime; my body sobbed as I moved.

And then a lightness overcame my steps, my heart, my brow. My eyes brightened, opening again to the room’s light – which was always changing with the weather outside its open windows. It dawned on me that bearing children was only one way of creating, and that we each have access to avenues of creation all the time. I wasn’t necessarily done giving birth!

In my Nia Black Belt training I realized that Debbie and Carlos would not be giving these trainings forever, so I retook my White, Blue and Brown belt trainings within a single year to more profoundly absorb their teaching. And sure enough, Carlos retired shortly thereafter, leaving Debbie to run Nia on her own. I felt so grateful for having acted on my intuition to return to Nia HQ so many times to study with Carlos and Debbie together.

Significantly, in one of my later trainings at Nia HQ before Carlos retired, he asked us to deeply consider how we really wanted Nia to come through us. That got me wondering.

Debbie responded to Carlos’ retirement by asking a number of us who were Black Belts to become 2nd Generation Nia teacher trainers. I was absolutely dumbfounded to receive such an invitation, when only 14 first generation Nia trainers existed in the world, besides Debbie. She invited us to attend a long weekend event called “Courting Your Destiny” to ask ourselves whether we were really cut out for the position of Nia teacher trainer. 

Over an enormously inspirational 3 days, I danced and meditated and self-questioned. On the last morning, we showed up at Nia headquarters in complete silence. Debbie had ceremonially arranged the dance floor with a circle of crimson cushions.

In the center of the circle stood a golden buddha statue, a vase of long-stem roses, and 2 wooden boxes. Into the first box we were asked to place a slip of paper stating either, “Yes! It IS my destiny to become a 2nd Generation Nia Trainer,” or “No, it is not my destiny to become a Nia Trainer. I will remain a Nia teacher.” Into the second box we were asked to put a letter addressed to ourselves, explaining our decision. Music played quietly in the background.

As we all sat on our cushions – over thirty of us – I felt the atmosphere thicken with heavy pondering over this deep decision, and I saw more than a few people wipe tears from their eyes. I wrestled with the thought that after 9 years in Hawaii, I was finally starting to find my place on the islands, and now Debbie was asking me to travel to different parts of the world many times a year as a Nia Trainer. Having Debbie invite me to so radically change my life caused me to ask myself, “Wow! If you can imagine doing that, Renée, what else can you imagine? What DO you want to be when you grow up?!?”  

Sitting there in Nia HQ’s magnificent studio in this silent time of choice, I felt a vision arising within me. Rather than traveling the world as Nia Trainer, I saw myself staying put on O’ahu and opening my own studio! It would have wonderful floors to hold Nia classes every day. And it would be a center of moving meditation, a hub for students, teachers and trainers from all over the world, from all different mindful movement disciplines, to come together and share their practices. I placed my ‘No’ slip into one box; honored as I was to be invited I was not destined to become a Nia Trainer. For the other box I wrote myself a letter about my newfound intention to open a studio in Honolulu. 

I conceived Still & Moving Center on August 14, 2010 at Nia Headquarters. I went home and told my husband Cliff that I had to open a movement studio. I just HAD to! I had never done anything like this before, and he chose to support me in the endeavor. On March 18, 2011 we opened Still & Moving at 1024 Queen Street in Honolulu! 

Along with the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California, Nia Headquarters has served as a place of learning upon which I modeled Still & Moving Center. “If I have seen farther,” said Galileo, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Such, indeed, is my position in regard to both of these venerable institutions. 

Now in March of 2021, ten years after opening our doors, the Nia Technique transitions out of its physical headquarters into a new phase with a virtual presence as its core. In the same month, Still & Moving Center celebrates its decade anniversary and prepares to reopen to in-person classes after a year of purely online classes in the Covid 19 era. 

My eyes water and I feel a lump in my throat when I realize that I will not dance again in that space in Portland where I learned SO MUCH about Nia, about Joy, about myself, and that I was supposed to create Still & Moving Center. I will grieve the loss of Nia HQ and the physical connection I made with so many dear people within it. 

And I release it, like everything in this world that has its life-cycle. I am comforted by the heart-thought of how many lives were impacted for the good at Nia HQ, and by the knowledge that Nia herself is still alive and well, through Debbie Rosas and all of us who still dance and teach Nia. And I take comfort in knowing that we at Still & Moving Center join many others in carrying forward the legacy of Nia Headquarters with Joy.

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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