Hawaii woman rediscovers her playful spirit through dance

By Nancy Arcayna, Special to the Star-Advertiser

Play is often viewed as unproductive or lazy. It’s that guilty pleasure that is reserved for the young, as grown-ups are expected to be serious and responsible. So, like many others, Renee Tillotson lost her playful spirit when she became an adult.

Responsibilities in career and family took priority, and she ended up on the sidelines watching her children have all the fun.

Renee Tillotson recaptured her youthful self through a barefoot movement class.

“I forgot how to play,” Tillotson admits.

“I sat on the side and cheered them on,” she said. “I was quite out of shape and lived a sedentary lifestyle.”

You’d never know that to see her now, a vision of wonder and whimsy.

When her kids became teens, the mother of three decided to start taking some classes at a local YMCA to relieve stress as she dealt with a family crisis.

“I was in my 40s, but all I could do was the senior classes. I’d have to take a hot shower or go in the Jacuzzi first to avoid any sprains,” she said.

After a few months she found nia, a barefoot movement class that draws from dance and martial arts. Nia helped her gain some strength, which helped her to graduate from the classes targeted to senior citizens.

At 48 she woke up in the middle of the night with an epiphany: “I was meant to dance,” she said. And she still feels that way.

Tillotson describes nia as “‘Romper Room’ for adults,” referring to the preschool-targeted TV show that encouraged kids at home to get off the couch and move.

Tillotson and Page share a laugh during the session.

“Through nia I’ve learned how to play again,” she said. “We make a lot of noise, and there’s a lot of silly stuff. It really inspired my imagination. I began writing and painting.”

Tillotson moves around the dance floor with grace, a broad smile across her face, as she radiates happiness and joy. She dances around and acts silly, and her energy is infectious.

“Nia is a connection to pure joy,” she said.

Tillotson, 63, is the founder and director of the Still and Moving Center, and has been doing nia since 2002.

She recently received her second-degree black belt in nia and teaches classes several times a week at the center.

She received training at the Nia International Headquarters from the co-creators of nia, Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas.

One of the best parts about nia is that you can ramp up a workout or take a gentle approach, she explained. “It takes all of the stress from my life and incinerates it.”

Tillotson has scoliosis but does not experience backaches. “The movement practices tend to fix any problems that are going on,” she said. “Learning to listen to my body is essential.”

Tillotson also does yoga and hula regularly and squeezes in tai chi and qigong when she finds the time.

“I’ve really dived into the Hawaiian culture by being active in our hula halau,” she said. She performed at the World Hula Conference in Hilo last year.

“We want the things that we are doing with our bodies to be helpful,” she said.

“Learning something absolutely brand-new is really an important factor in keeping my mind pliant. Kahiko is such a rigorous practice. I’m one of the oldest participants but with the least experience,” she said.

She studied gymnastics as a youngster and was captain of the gymnastics team at her high school and at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Once I graduated from college, it was the end of my movement career. I got really involved in my work life, family life and having kids,” she said. She worked as a teacher specializing in drama and English.

Renee Tillotson teaches a nia class at the Still and Moving Center in Kakaako. Tillotson on Feb. 19 led her students Irene Mackay, left, Joanne Edgar, Eunice DeMello and Karen Morisaki Page.

But once she fell in love with nia, that changed everything. She opened the Still and Moving Center in 2011 with a mission to teach nia and help others incorporate movement into everyday life.

“I’m teaching them to move in ways that are healthy for their own well-being as opposed to a follow-the-leader type of class.”

The center also offers an array of classes that promote “mindful movement,” including martial arts, yoga, dance, qigong and the Feldenkrais Method, a type of exercise therapy.

“We are clear-headed when we take care of our health,” she said. “A good workout provides clarity so we don’t get clouded by emotions.”

Tillotson always has time to play now, especially in her nia classes.

“Nia is all about awareness. It’s a moving meditation for me, as well as a chance to play like a child again,” she said.

“Nia helps to reset my silly button.”


>> Where: Still and Moving Center, 1024 Queen St.

>> Phone: 397-7678

>> On the Net: stillandmovingcenter.com

>> Notes: Get $10 off your first nia or other class when you check in with Yelp or Aloha Street.

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