An Interview with Nia Teacher Janet Shook Leitâo

Janet Shook Leitâo is a White Belt certified Nia teacher located in Lisbon, Portugal. She first found Nia while working as a dancer and dance teacher in Istanbul, Turkey.

Nia: How did you first begin practicing Nia? Where were you and what was your mind-set at the time?

Janet: Even though I grew up in Oregon, I had not heard of Nia before. I moved away in 2005 and was living abroad in Turkey, working as a dancer and dance teacher of Orientale and Turkish Gypsy. Then I came home for my sister's wedding in Corvallis. I was looking at a notice board for some sort of exercise class just to get my body moving, and the only thing that caught my eye was a very non-descript flyer for Nia classes. I showed up and and found out it was actually being held at someone's flat, but the group was large. All of them were much more mature than I was; they were probably an average age of 55 years. I was only 28 at the time. I left that Nia class glowing, and I floated through town thinking, “That is JUST what I needed… a real, active, healthy dance class with no pressure to be good!" I had been very stuck in the visual aspect of dance because of my profession as performer.

N: What made you decide to become a Nia teacher? What was that experience like?

J: I was already teaching dance, but dance is so often approached as aesthetic thing, and my dance form (Belly Dance) within Turkish culture is highly performance-based. I always tried to get my students to feel their bodies, their true selves coming through, and to dance in archetypal imagery, to take themselves out of judgement and expectation. But because of the dance “form,” the movements and music were limited. I hadn’t found a way to break away from the style of dance I was experienced in. This was very limiting to me. Nia provided movements beyond a specific type or image. It provided movements with an objective of benefiting the dancer, not the audience. That was what I wanted to give my students all along – a chance to change their bodies while loving their bodies.

N: What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced when becoming a Nia teacher (if any)?

J: I was newly pregnant and was supporting myself as a bohemian artist in Istanbul while touring with a popular band and playing in night clubs and at festivals. It was a huge life change to suddenly need to settle down and get a steady schedule going. I took my White Belt Training with Ann Christiansen in London, as it was the closest place to Istanbul. But I found out I was pregnant the day before I flew over. I was very ill during the whole White Belt. After that I had to figure out how to integrate my new personal life into a profession as a dancer, and then to try to introduce Nia to Turkey, where it had never been before. After the fourth month of my pregnancy, we decided to move to Portugal, where I faced the same problem, in addition to not speaking the language. There was no Nia in Portugal, and trying to inform people of it in a new language presents quite a challenge. I still struggle with the language and find it a huge barrier to advertising and marketing, though I improve all the time. Also, I run into cultural barriers. The Portuguese culture tends to not be inclined towards the same ideas and language used in Nia. There is not a large new-age culture there, and in general it is not a very up-beat place.

N: What changes have you witnessed in your students? Can you give us a few examples?

J: My students have told me things like “I can do things with my body that I never thought I could” and “My blood pressure is way down” and “Nia clears out the clutter in my head” and “It is the only way I have lost weight.” And these are from students I have only had for a few months, as I am new to the area I am in now. What I have noticed in them is that their true character begins to come through in their movements. I know that when they come to Nia with me, they feel safe and empowered to live out a part of themselves that they cannot live out in the other parts of their lives. And the characters they express are powerful, fun, magical, wonderful beings. I am happy to know them and so privileged to see them.

N: What are your goals for the future, as related to Nia and your teaching career? How do you plan to achieve them?

J: I want to make Nia a known form of movement in Portugal. In effect, I want it to be available throughout Portugal and I want to be the one that makes this happen by introducing Nia to others, and by assisting in providing trainings here. Allison Wright, Vickie Saito and I are planning to hold a White Belt Training here in July. It is the perfect place to take an active vacation. The beaches are some of the best in Europe. Anyway, I have a huge advantage for these things, as my location is so beautiful. And in the future if we get Debbie Rosas here, we can start to make Portugal a Nia training retreat center! Tracey Fenner already has a retreat very close to where I am once a year, and I know she has wonderful success. On a smaller scale, I am working to provide as many classes as I can in my area, which means traveling a little to nearby villages. My ultimate fantasy would be to have a permanent retreat center here…. Or to be in Portland co-choreographing Nia routines.

N: How have you promoted yourself as a Nia teacher?

J: I have worked on a small scale. And I work with small classes, because I am in a small town. I use flyer distribution and word of mouth. I offer a lot of open classes for people to experience Nia, as it is still completely unknown here. I also will walk into any fitness center or studio and introduce myself and ask if they are interested in having Nia. But now I am just teaching out of three locations.

N: What is your favorite Nia routine to teach? Why?

J: Velvet. Because it is a wild woman routine, and because Portugal is a very conservative society. Velvet gives the students a chance to really express their personal freedom. And then it ends with community-building and solidarity. I always feel really great after Velvet.