It could be a spiral. It could be a line.
Naina Dewan has lived in Greenville, South Carolina, for seven years, though she says it feels like three. In that time, she’s taught modern and contemporary dance at some of the area’s best-known dance schools and helped develop a new vision focused on international dance while on the theater and dance faculty at Converse College for the Lawson Academy of the Arts. Meanwhile, she’s built a small dance company of her own.
And, she’s become a good friend of mine.
We recently sat on the floor in front of my living room fireplace while leaves gently rained down outside and the afternoon tried to settle itself somewhere between sunny and gray. In her current role as Fine Arts Program Coordinator with Senior Action, Naina is sharing her passion for dance and movement with area residents age fifty-five and up. We talked about her true love, Alexander Technique, a form of neuromuscular education and ease of movement, and the ways in which we as individuals move through life – literally.
Jennifer: I’ve known you since I was looking for a contemporary or modern dance class for adults. Regularly, for a couple of years, I would just Google every so often, and then one time in 2015, finally, there was your class.
Naina: I was, at that time, being an outreach teacher for Carolina Ballet Theatre.
Jennifer: We had like a month, I think, of just me and you in the studio.
Naina: Yes, and we integrated Alexander Technique with some modern and contemporary dance.
Jennifer: That was very cool. I’d wanted to take a dance class like that forever, so it was super cool to have all my “personal instruction.” You had your little iPad, and you recorded me and made me watch myself dancing, which was very hard.
Naina: I’ll have to dig that out, because I think I still have it.
Jennifer: No, no, you don’t.
Naina: [Laughs] No, it was really wonderful. I think you were my first student in Greenville. It’s always hard to find the right place to teach when you’re new in town and don’t know anyone. It was a gift to be able to start my teaching career in Greenville CBT, and with you as my student.
Jennifer: All right. So, tell me a little bit about your background.
Naina: Before I got here, I was living up in western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. I come from a cross-cultural background – biracial, bicultural. I was born in New Delhi, India, but grew up in western Massachusetts.
I went to college in upstate New York and spent my twenties in New York City at grad school. I’ve mostly studied psychology and movement and social work, and, in my twenties, I went to grad school at NYU and at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York City. I also worked a number of office jobs and danced professionally. So, it was a full, active, rich life, as far as activity.
Jennifer: Were you doing the starving artist thing in New York?
Naina: Well, I wasn’t starving, but things were definitely, definitely penny-pinched. When I could, I danced as a professional and modern dancer, with mostly smaller groups. I worked in offices; I worked at spas. Well, first it was grad school at the Alexander Technique school, which took three years. Then I was hoping to integrate movement with talk therapy and basically be a body-oriented psychotherapist.
I first started the Master of Social Work program at NYU and got accepted to programs at Columbia and the New School and applied to PhD programs. But after eight years in New York, I just had no desire to be there for six more years, and I moved back to the Berkshires. It was one of the best things I ever decided to do: returning to nature, returning to a more affordable cost of living, returning to a place that I called home. The beauty of the fall and the beauty of nature there fed my soul – I have to say, really fed my life.
So, I basically decided to be a special ed teacher, and I was able to use all of my background and my artistic background into devising a program for at-risk teenage girls at a residential treatment center. While it was hard experiencing the results of their extremely abusive pasts, having the chance to teach them completely made me rethink everything I knew about education, being a role model, being a teacher.
What does teaching actually mean? How do I actually inspire them, despite their past and everything in their mind and all of their emotional pain and all of their anger? How can I actually just connect with them a little bit, just connect with them enough to pull them out of their story, out of their pain for a moment – like a moment a day?
My students had a range of difficulties, from schizophrenia and organic mental illness to a history of violent behavior, sometimes a history of incarceration. Sometimes they were in the foster care system in New York City for years on end. This treatment center was kind of the last stop on the train before jail.
It really, really was very humbling. It forced me to develop the skills and character to engage with some of the darkest places of the human condition without responding and judging. But, I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. I guess I’m a little too empathic to do that long-term.
Jennifer: So, you’re absorbing too much of other people’s experiences and can’t draw those boundaries that you want?
Naina: At that time, that was true for me. It’s about ten years ago now. Some of our students were able to go off to college. Those were so-called successes, but honestly, it made me redefine what success meant.
Jennifer: How has your definition of success evolved since you got to Greenville seven years ago? You’ve done a lot of different things in that time.
Naina: Absolutely. But it always revolved around what I decided to come back to: my love for movement and dance and the lessons that can be learned in a classroom or on a stage. I basically recommitted to the path of a movement teacher, a choreographer, and an Alexander Technique teacher. I began teaching modern dance and Alexander Technique at many, many different schools in the area, teaching ages three all the way through college, adults, even people in hospice care.
So, for me, success was not so much recognition anymore: not being known, but just doing strong, respectable work in the field that I love, which is movement – Alexander Technique – and creating work, creating performance.
My definition of success has definitely evolved away from recognition – this idea of “making it” – to personal fulfillment. Also, connecting with what a student might need, what a client might need, what a dancer might need.
What is the point of learning something new? Usually, for me now, it comes back to alleviating suffering and bringing in joy, bringing in less pain, bringing in more ease, bringing in somatic relaxation, helping someone create the space to come back to themselves, to tune in to their body. To experience the intelligence that is embodied already in them from their life journey, witnessing that, respecting that, honoring that for that person and helping them have a daily life that has a little bit less pain, a little bit more ease, and a little bit more presence.
Jennifer: I stopped doing your dance class because I realized I was pregnant, and it was kind of a little too much to introduce this whole new thing at the same time. But, four or five years later, we started doing the Alexander stuff. For me, it was like being able to occupy space differently, more than just with my physical body. It helped with some big conferences or work meetings I was prepping for. I felt half an inch taller after those first few sessions.
Naina: Absolutely. Alexander Technique is a great modality – not a panacea, but a great modality for slowing down. We talked about your vision of your first event, the [Gallery Go Slow]. That is right up my alley, because for so many years I’ve been imagining a movement of slow dance, slow movement. There’s this whole slow food movement, right?
Slowing down is so hard to do alone in this world – at least, in the Western world, where there’s just so much out there now about the pace of life and how things are speeding up. Our ability to access knowledge and each other and anything we want, really, is just at our fingertips. What’s being lost? What’s being gained?
Alexander is a great technique for slowing down the nervous system. It asks the question, “How do we live in our bodies? How do we want to live in our bodies? How do we think into our bodies? How do we think about our bodies, and if we change the way we think, what changes in our movement? How do we want to exist in gravity? Is it a push-pull? Is it a fight, or can it be a fluid dance?” Each person’s answer is different.
Maybe fluidity is more stable than rigidity, and it’s like an integration of these dualistic concepts, where it’s not just mind and thinking or body and feeling. It’s going into this realm where the brain’s in the head, but the mind’s in the body, and how do we want to exist in space?
Jennifer: Fluidity was one of the most interesting ideas. I mean, so much of how we construct our lives is about rigidity, and it got me thinking, well, stasis is death, right? If things don’t change or evolve in some way, then they’re not alive. If I’m trying to get my body to this static point, it’s not going to work, because it’s natural.
Naina: Right. This illusion that a static point or rigidity is stable or secure.
Jennifer: Right? It’s actually very fragile.
Naina: And we’re looking for security, perhaps, a lot of us. When you talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that’s the first need. But then, how do we get that? If we don’t understand the oppositions in our body dynamically, how will we ever be able to play with the contradictions of life?
Naina: Wow, this is so inspiring, because it’s just leading to other ideas. Dwight Rhoden, the choreographer, said to me once, “I don’t pretend to have any answers, but these are more questions and some thoughts.” It’s easy to think about it, but how are we experiencing fluidity, and how does that change the experience of our daily life? How are we thinking about our body and aging? That’s something I’ve been thinking about: how important is mobility and agency?
Jennifer: What you’re talking about is a practical thing, to realize that I can walk into a room that’s intimidating, and I’ve got kind of this small, shrinking physical presence. But I now have this almost like a physical vocabulary for what it can feel like to have the space and be bigger. It’s pretty subtle. I don’t know that anyone in the room would really notice. But then it also elevates my thinking and enlarges my presence in a way that gives me more confidence.
Your talk about rigidity made me think of older folks. It seems like everything you hear is you have to just keep moving as you age. But I don’t think that most people are necessarily thinking about dance.
Naina: Yeah, of course.
Jennifer: Or they’re thinking about walking around in circles in the mall, which I have done with the older folks at our local mall, and they're a great group. But there’s more available to us.
Naina: Maybe it’s not rigidity and holding up or holding down, but it’s tapping into our fluidity and capacity for expansion, by choice. But that takes practice, and I love that concept of every day is a practice of movement.
It’s a practice of exploring verticality: I got that from a Senior Action member. I met her in the bathroom, just passing by, and I’m like, “How are you today?” “Well, I’m vertical,” she said. That just blew my mind, because I love that.
Let’s explore verticality. When are we ever taught how to be upright? We’re not. We don’t even know how to be upright with joy. I mean, some people just say, “Well, I don’t care about joy. I just want to survive.” Yeah, of course we do. But maybe it can be both. It doesn’t have to be one or the other – kaleidoscopic moments of joy, of movement.
But that takes intention. I think the specificity of language and intention is key. How we think about our identities can be, perhaps, more kaleidoscopic. Movement in the body can be kaleidoscopic. I’m really playing with that word because it’s about changing, shifting, adapting to the forces around us. Like in Aikido, you yield and then redirect. I think there’s something really important there.
Jennifer: What are you doing at Senior Action?
Naina: We have programs from financial planning to wellness and fine arts, from lunch to seminars. My role right now is called the Fine Arts Coordinator. It will eventually morph into director as we build a fine arts center in a newly renovated building in 2020. People may just come and take a simple art class, and some might want to take a semester of learning how to play the cello. We’re still in the program development phase.
I’m very excited about the potential of what we can offer to the community here. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about and researching and talking about these days is we need to elevate what we offer to our seniors.
Jennifer: Just in general?
Naina: In general and in Greenville County. Why do we have world-class fine arts centers just for the young? Why don’t we sustain this development of creativity as people age? There are so many stories, expressions, songs, and dances that have yet to be danced from the seniors. Their life journey offers a depth that I think is unparalleled.
What really intrigues me is, what are their stories through movement? I’ve been teaching some Alexander Technique classes there, and we bring it into more movement and a loosely structured movement improvisation at the end of class.
For example, you can raise your arm slowly in a plethora of patterns. It could be a curving path. It could be a spiraling path. It could be a straight line. So I give a loose structure of the pathway, and there is a lot of room for exploration. But it’s not what it looks like; it’s how it feels. That’s the difference of focus. I don’t care what it looks like at this point. In the future, I would love to lead a movement ensemble of some of the members, like a company of elders, if you will.
I think the dances and the movement would be so beautiful. I find their movement beautiful. The way that they fight for vibrant verticality, their fight for mobility, has been so inspiring to me. I was so arrogant: I thought I’d go in and help them lead a more vibrant life. They’re teaching me how to live a more vibrant life.
Jennifer: That’s awesome.
Naina: Mobility is such a huge, huge issue. It’s so important, and I never realized how important, despite my thirty years of studying dance.
Jennifer: So, I understand what you’re saying about it doesn’t matter how they look, but I am curious, and I think people would be curious to know: how does it look different from other folks at other stages in their lives?
Naina: Sure. Well, I guess it really depends on the group you’re working with. When it comes to dance, though, as far as performance dance, I’m really questioning, what is dance? I want the dance community to really expand, and I’m not the only one.
There’s a call for expanding, just destroying the parameters of dance and expanding who can dance, who’s allowed to dance, who’s allowed to perform. It shouldn’t just be beautiful, thin, young people. You should be able to perform and dance no matter what your age.
But I guess we’re really getting into what is considered beautiful, and the industry of performance as far as who gets booked where, for how much of a crowd can you bring in?
Naina: I’m not even looking at that right now. Right now, I’m intrigued by the stories they have to tell in their hand. I’m even intrigued by just the beauty of how a hand looks as it changes through age. How does a hand move?
I see, sometimes, great lightness – beautiful lightness, people floating like a feather – but then, sometimes, a mistrust of their balance. So how do we work with that? Does that help someone or not help someone during the day? Usually, it’s better to have a little bit more trust in your shifting balance. So, I see an experience, a slowing down of movement, a fight for verticality, a fight for balance, for continued balance, trust in the body.
It’s all connected. There’s an intersection of everything. Boy, I really sound out there in this interview, but I don’t care.
Jennifer: If “out there” is where you’re living, that’s where we’ll meet you. It’s fine.
Naina: So, it’s this vulnerability of movement that I find so beautiful. The resiliency of moving every day – say, if you’re fifty-five or sixty-five or ninety-five – is intentional. It’s inspiring. There’s this belief out there about a decay of movement as you grow older; that doesn’t have to be the case.
Dance and movement and vibrancy doesn’t have to be a leg that’s held up at 180 degrees. For me, it’s about the dynamics and intention and breath. I’m seeing how breath and the conscious use of breath eases their movement. Feeling rigidity morph into fluidity in an hour is the most exquisite thing. Seeing the spine lengthen is the most beautiful thing to me. That’s the most beautiful dance.
Naina: Walking across the floor with confidence is, to me, extremely inspiring. Not everyone will see that, and that’s okay.