RESPONSE-ability: A Conversation with Susan McCulley

The following post is written by Denise Stewart who is a writer, actor, coach and teacher. She takes Nia classes from Susan McCulley (pictured right), holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Univeristy of Virginia and worked in the corporate weight loss industry for almost three years. Visit her personal website for more information.


I like to exercise with other people. I’m not afraid to exercise by myself:  I walk in silence; I walk the dog; I do the elliptical machine while watching old episodes of What Not to Wear; I run by myself; but my FAVORITE way to exercise is with other people. In a class. With an instructor. The better the instructor, the happier I am. 

When I take a class with Susan McCulley I’m happy – like stupid happy. I’m not the only one who will say this. She is a beloved fitness instructor in Charlottesville. She teaches Nia and several other classes at my gym. Wait, you say, what is Nia? I usually say something like (while talking with my hands), “It’s the BEST dance class”  or “It’s like dance and martial arts with great music… it’s all these cool people of all ages” or “Um, it’s not the kind of class that you randomly take your husband to (because you feel like he hates it)” and it just doesn’t explain the whole thing. 

According to the Nia website, “Nia is a sensory-based movement practice that leads to health, wellness and fitness. It empowers people of all shapes and sizes by connecting the body, mind, emotions and spirit. Classes are taken barefoot to soul-stirring music in more than 45 countries. Trainings are designed for those seeking personal enrichment and professional development. Every experience can be adapted to individual needs and abilities. Nia draws from disciplines of the martial arts, dance arts and healing arts. Every class offers a unique combination of 52 moves that correspond with the main areas of the body: the base, the core and the upper extremities. Consecutive trainings collectively explore 52 principles for personal enrichment and professional development.”

One time, in the middle of class, Susan said, “Don’t skimp on the boogie!”  She says quotable things. I would keep a notebook except I’m trying to dance. Recently, as we were about to start class, she asked us to think about RESPONSE–ability instead of responsibility. I liked that. After class, I asked if she would help kickstart my group exercise series with an interview. Here we go:

DS: Can you say a little bit more about RESPONSE-ability?

SM:  As I make my way through my day, my tendency is to react to what is happening. Whatever is going on, I tend to have an immediate and definitely not-well-thought-out reaction that rarely serves me. So for example, if I wake up and my knee hurts, my reaction is fear. I immediately think, “I’m injured. I won’t be able to walk or move or dance and I’ll get depressed and crazy and no one will love me.” Or something equally unthinking and irrational. If, on the other hand, I take the time to respond, then I can investigate what is actually happening and make choices from there. So in the same scenario when I wake up with a hurting knee, I might take some breaths, move and touch my knee, and investigate how much it actually hurts and if I can move it and walk on it. Then I can make some choices from a spacious place of curiosity: perhaps I need a day off from teaching, or maybe I need a little ice, or maybe I need to take a yoga class. So I can explore and experiment and stay present rather than spiraling into a frightening, unseen future.

When I hear the word “responsibility” I think obligation, duty, work and effort. If I shift the word to “response-ability,” that is, my ability to respond, I feel so much more relaxation and interest about what is possible. How can I choose to respond to this situation? I’ve found this strategy works particularly well when things are going well (like when I feel great and having a peak experience) or when they are going craptastically (like when I am in pain or feeling awkward and uncoordinated). Either way, I can look at what’s happening and see how I want to respond rather than react.

DS:  Can you give me a little bio?

SM:  I took my first Nia class in 1999, and did my White Belt Training (Nia’s training system is modeled after a martial arts belt system) and began teaching in 2000. I fell in love with sharing the practice of Nia in classes, workshops and retreats (I’ve led retreats in Peru, Costa Rica, and Dominica as well as locally at the Sevenoaks Retreat Center). In 2006, I received my Black Belt, the highest belt offered, which was a huge deal for me. A martial arts teacher told me once that a Black Belt doesn’t mean that I am an expert, or that I know everything. Being a Black Belt means “now I am a student.” I just love that. It is exactly how I feel, that I am continuing to learn all the time.

In 2009, I received my certification to teach the Nia 5 Stages, an integrative movement practice based on the five stages of human development facilitates optimal alignment, improved function and comfort in the body. In addition to Nia, I also practice meditation and yoga and have studied Buddhist philosophy. In 2010, I developed a new class experience called Dharma Dance that combines mindfulness, 5 Stages, choreographed movement to relax and release the nervous system, freedance and relaxation.

DS: Do you have a ritual before you begin a class? How do you feel like the short intro at the start of class affects the class?

SM:  Before class, I listen to the music, review the movements and clarify our focus (the intro at the beginning of class). If I’m feeling nervous or unsettled in any way, I will often take a few minutes to get still (in Nia, we call it "Creating the Space") and sometimes I will do the 5 Stages. The most important thing I do before class, though, is whatever I need to do to relax. Setting the focus at the beginning of class is an essential part of the Nia experience. It directs the attention of the class and guides my teaching. I find that by setting the focus, we discover things and notice things that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Energy follows attention, so directing our attention also directs energy!

DS:  I’ve taken many Nia classes that I would consider “fabulous.” What makes a “fabulous” class to you?

SM:  A fabulous class is when the participants are “game” and when we are in it together. A fabulous class is when everyone is taking "response-ability" for themselves, they are fully engaged in their own experience and they are aware of what is going on around them. I call this the “alone together” feeling: a feeling that I can am aware of myself and another at the same time. Taking care of myself does not mean that I have to ignore anyone else and THAT is a rush. A fabulous class is when I feel relaxed and teaching feels effortless and the right words come at exactly the right moment. I connect to everybody in the room as well as myself. It’s also usually really sweaty.

DS:  What do you like about group exercise and do you remember the first class you ever taught?

SM:  I love working out in a group. I enjoy the camaraderie and the energy a room full of moving people offers. I love the music and the opportunity to help each other have an experience that would not be possible alone. The first time I ever taught, I had gone to a Nia class and the teacher was late. I had been working for months on learning a Nia routine with (in retrospect) complex and challenging music and movement. I was crazy-nervous about teaching but when the instructor was late, I just jumped in and taught the first song and I felt huge relief in getting that first time out of the way! It was awesome to spontaneously step in front of the class, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. Shortly after that, I taught a complete class and loved it (although I do remember after finishing the first song thinking, “Oh my word, I have 10 more songs to go! How will I ever do it?”), just loved teaching the routine and sharing the work.

DS:  Could you describe one memory that sticks out after all these years of teaching?

SM:  Two memories, actually, that I’ve had many times. I remember early in my career, teaching a big, special holiday class with lots of new and experienced students, and it just rocked! It felt like we were all in it together and having a great time while also having our individual experiences. We were definitely “alone together.” I’ve experienced this many times since, and it was the first time I was aware of it. The second memory is when I showed up and taught a class to the best of my ability but wasn't really sure if anyone got anything out of it. I may have felt "off" in some way or was not getting a clear sense of the group being “in it.” And then someone told me afterwards that it was just exactly what she needed and how in the world did I know to do just what I did? Whenever this happens, I'm reassured that the practice of Nia is powerfully good even when I’m not.

Many thanks to Susan for letting me pick her dancing, open mind. It’s hard to talk about Nia without getting this look on my face and wanting to tell you that every time I take this class I get good ideas, a dose of healing, and a shirt full of sweat.  Most of all, I know that Nia reconnected me with dancing, something I always did growing up and haven’t done regularly since college. If you are attracted to dance, I encourage you to check out a local Nia class. Charlottesville is quite a hub of Nia activity.

Also: Susan is teaching a Dharma Dance series this month (July) and she also has a retreat in September called, "Balance: Falling is Half the Fun, A Movement Retreat."