One day it happens: you walk into the gym and the place has all the energy of a geriatric ward. Your Power Step teacher is a nurse force-feeding you boiled chicken, the sterilized drone of dance music beats to the rhythm of a drip feeding tube, and while the treadmill was always just another clinical contraption to get your blood pumping, this time your heart isn't in it. The quickest cure for the exercise blahs is to take your workout on a restorative vacation. Stirring in a studio near you are whole new worlds of movement, from the slow, burning intensity of t'ai chi ch'uan to the celebratory leaps of African dance.
Before embarking, keep a few things in mind: First, never judge a class by its dressing room; many studios are in people's homes, and even the larger facilities often forgo niceties like lockers, showers, and water fountains. And as when traveling in any foreign country, you'll need to allow for differing concepts of time (the schedule may say 6:30, but don't bank on it). Finally, don't be a tourist. Toss out your inhibitions and embrace the hip swivel. Or the high kick. Or the elongated step. If you'd wanted the same tired moves, you wouldn't be here in the first place, right?
T'AI CHI CH'UAN
We've all seen that guy in the park, oblivious to the softball games and barbecues, doing slow-motion dance that looks kind of geisha meets Jedi. Actually, he's bringing his yin and yang into balance with t'ai chi ch'uan, a Chinese martial art. Translating as "great ultimate fist," t'ai chi consists of slow, sustained movements, diaphragmatic breathing, and mental concentration. Popular as an alternative form of low-impact exercise and meditation, it's been linked to lower blood pressure, stress reduction, gastrointestinal improvements, and -- as instructor Kwok Kay Choey points out -- downright glee. "I used to be so moody," he told me. "Now I'm so happy because I have good chi in my organs."
Memorizing the sequences is the greatest challenge initially, but as one student noted optimistically, "You'll get it after about a million times." Expect a quiet studio with lots of individual attention, and feel free to wear street clothes. Don't be discouraged if you're not breaking a sweat. Your mind, muscles, posture, and breathing are all getting a workout.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden Prospect Park, Brooklyn (718-623-7220). Fridays noon to 1 p.m., beginning October 6; $55 members, $61 nonmembers per eight-week session. Class size limited to 24. The advanced classes take place on the Cherry Esplanade, weather permitting. Beginner students are taught in a classroom in the Visitor's Center. The instructor incorporates a few minutes of meditation and a few ailment-specific exercises -- including one that prevents earaches caused by pressure changes when flying.
Ahn Tai Chi Studio 1182 Broadway, near 28th Street, Suite 1104 (212-481-2553; www.ahntaichi.com). Must call for reservation. Tuesdays and Thursdays 7 to 9 p.m.; $98 for eight sessions. Class size limited to ten. Master Don Ahn has been teaching since 1970. Clients include Iggy Pop and David Copperfield. Classes take place in Ahn's apartment.
H. Won Tai Chi Institute 30 West 32nd Street, sixth floor (212-594-3860; www.nytaichi.com). Monday through Friday 5 to 10 p.m. (students can come and go as they wish); four weekly classes, $100. Class size unlimited. The only place in New York that teaches traditional Yang-family t'ai chi without incorporating other types of martial arts.
Just because you're interested in a little shimmy doesn't mean you've got less-than-wholesome intentions: It's only Americans who associate belly dancing with harems and concubines. In Turkey, it's considered folk dancing. A low-impact exercise made up of movements that go in the direction of the body's natural striation, it massages your inner organs while giving your muscles a workout, too, says Morocco, the owner of the Morocco Academy of Mid-Eastern Dance. Bellydancing requires an isolation of body parts that feels awkward at first, even to experienced dancers -- it's not often you hear a teacher screech, "It feels like it's going to fall off, but it won't!" as you gyrate your rump. But it is an opportunity to explore your exotic side as you gear up with beaded tops, gold-coin-laden scarves, colorful skirts, and finger cymbals.
Belly dancing attracts students of all ages (and not just women). Instructor Anahid Sofian stresses that you can come into it from any point in life and get something out of it. Come to class in any waist-emphasizing top (you're not required to bare flesh) and the most flamboyant scarf or skirt you've got, tied around your hips.
Morocco Academy of Mid-Eastern Dance 320 West 15th Street (212-727-8326; www.tiac.net/users/morocco). Tuesdays 6:10 to 7:55 p.m., Saturdays 1:45 to 3:15 p.m.; $15 per session. Class size is about fifteen. Classes begin with stretching and technique by Tarik abdel Malik; then Morocco comes in and the class attempts to duplicate her interpretations of several songs.
Anahid Sofian 29 West 15th Street, sixth floor (212-741-2848). Classes by appointment only; $9 per session for beginners. Class size is about fifteen. Anahid Sofian follows a traditional class format, beginning with a half-hour of concentrated stretching and continuing with a breakdown of movements to make up a full dance.
Serena Studios 939 Eighth Avenue, near 55th Street, Suite 403 (212-247-1051; www.serenastudios.com). Monday through Thursday 6 to 7 p.m., Fridays till 8 p.m., Saturdays 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and Sundays 2 to 3 p.m.; $9 per class. Class size is about fifteen. A packed studio of women follows Serena as she goes through small movements and more complex combinations.
If t'ai chi and bellydancing sound like sissy stuff to you, try your hand (and legs and torso) at Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art invented by African slaves who disguised it as a dance to keep their overseers from getting suspicious. The basic step is a back-and-forth rocking with the torso bent over and arms up in defense. From there Capoeira evolves into one-armed cartwheels, twisted airborne kicks, and low-to-the-ground swipes reminiscent of break dancing. Combined with fluid, dancelike movements and traditional music, these acrobatics culminate in the roda, in which one-on-one combat takes place within a circle of participants. (Usually, though, any actual physical contact is purely accidental.) Don't be discouraged; even for beginners, Capoeira increases strength, flexibility, and endurance.
The most popular forms of Capoeira are Regional (lots of fast, aerial moves, macho one-upmanship, and physical boasting) and Angola (resembles a choreographed dance, with slower movements). In both players wear white pants, a white T-shirt, and either no shoes or soft-soled sneakers.
Raízes do Brasil Capoeira 2031-33 Fifth Avenue, at 125th Street; 440 Lafayette Street, Suite 3F; and 425 Broome Street, Studio 4R (212-750-3844; www.capoeiranyc.com). Mondays and Wednesdays 7 to 8 p.m. at the 125th Street location; Tuesdays and Thursdays 8 to 9:30 p.m. at Lafayette Street; Saturdays 4:30 to 6 p.m. at Broome Street; $15 per session. Class size limited to fifteen. Classes begin with vigorous stretching, move on to basic movements, and end with the roda.
Capoeira Angola Center of Mestre João Grande 104 West 14th Street, third floor (212-989-6975). Classes offered Monday through Friday 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m. to noon.; $12 per session. Class size is about 25. Classes incorporate partnership work, so you'll always have someone to work through the movements with you. Roda is offered every Sunday from 2 to 7 p.m. Spectators are welcome.
The first time I observed a class at the Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre, I was terrified. I arrived early, so I watched the previous class. The students stood at one end of the long studio as a group of drummers pounded out an almost deafening rhythm at the other end. The teacher, a small woman with powerful limbs, moved across the floor, arms swinging up and behind as her head flew forward and her legs kicked and spun. In rows of three, the students followed, executing the steps perfectly after a single demonstration. Just watching was exhausting, and the drums only increased my anxiety. But I survived. Sure, I had blisters on the bottom of my feet for a week and was incapable of raising my arms for a couple of days, but then I was back again for another class. Classes start with stretching and calisthenics, after which you'll work through a long combination piece-by-piece. Then the drummers come in and the class starts moving across the floor, mimicking the instructor. Dancers are barefoot and wear long skirts of African fabric over leggings.
Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre 37 East 18th Street, seventh floor (212-477-3464; www.djoniba.com). Classes offered all day; call for schedule; $12 per 90-minute session. Three studios offer African, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Haitian, and Afro-Guinean classes every day, all with live drumming. Capoeira, belly-dancing, and djimbe-drum classes are also available.
Sal Anthony's Movement Salon 190 Third Avenue, at 17th Street (212-420-7242; www.movementsalon.com). Call for schedule; $10 per session. Class size is about 25. Offers Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian dance, t'ai chi, and belly dancing.