As we approach the end of May, also known as Mental Awareness Month, how much time have you really devoted to finding your own rhythm in the past few weeks? If you still haven’t got those endorphins flowing by taking up running, like you promised that you would, or felt the exhilaration of hitting a PR in the gym because “life” keeps taking over, then Tara Nicole Hughes may have the perfect solution for restoring harmony between your mind, body, and soul: Dance

M&F Hers sat down with the co-choreographer of Disney’s new live action spectacular, “The Little Mermaid” to find out how those of us with two left feet should begin, and what benefits we can expect to receive from letting loose on the floor. We soon learned that whether it’s on the big screen, or in a safe space at home, dance is truly a gift.

Tara Nicole Hughes
Diana Koenigsberg

Dance Is for Everyone

In the same way that we take up any other form of exercise, every individual starts their dance journey from a different starting position. “I was born with pigeon toed legs,” says Hughes, who is now one of Hollywood’s top dance choreographers with a list of credits including “Chicago,” “The Terminal,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” and “The Little Mermaid.” “My parents had to put hard casts on my legs to straighten them out. So that I could walk easier, my mom put me in a ballet class when I was seven. I remember being at this long ballet (barre) in this huge studio, and just being this small little person, but really getting swept up in the music and the dance and I never wavered from that path. That was the beginning for me and I just never left the dance studio really.”

From humble beginnings, Hughes has now shared her love of dance with the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Penelope Cruz, and of course; Halle Bailey.

Dance Is a Great Way to Burn Calories

The benefits that dance will place on your wellbeing are seemingly endless, since dancing will give you a total body workout. As a cardio activity, you’ll build stamina through dancing, and you’ll also gain muscle and improve balance and coordination. Any aerobic activity, such as dance, is a great way to combat depression too, and did you know that just 30 minutes of ballet style dancing could burn 179 calories? If hip hop is more your thing, you could torch 207 calories in the same timeframe!

Dance is a Social Affair

We were never going to get through a story of this nature without trotting out the cliché that “it takes two to tango,” and that’s because no truer words have ever been spoken. Whether you are cutting up a rug in your local civic hall or working on a big budget Disney movie, dance is a social affair that rejuvenates us through the human bonds that we make. And, when you hope to put on a showstopper like “The Little Mermaid,” teamworking skills are essential. Hughes credits Rob Marshall and his creative partner, John DeLuca, for conceiving all the musical numbers that moviegoers will be floored by in “The Little Mermaid.”

And, here’s some insider info: When you see Halle Bailey gliding effortlessly through the water, remember that it took a whole crew to create the magic. “We used rigs for the underwater sequences,” explains the choreographer. “We used a process called ‘dry for wet.’ So, it’s a blue screen world and we used rigs, including one that looked like a tuning fork, that allows Halle and the sisters to swim in this kind of horizontal position. And then the tail, we just had to frame for it. We knew how long the tail was (to be added later through CGI) and we did have a mock tail, almost like a sleeve that she would put on, because having a tail with your feet together changes how you move and the shape of things.”

Hughes adds that members of the stunt crew would seamlessly move Halle Bailey’s rig, meaning that not only did she have to appear effortless in her movements, but the crew around her had to work in perfect synergy to make everything look smooth.

Dance Is a Great Way to Improve Confidence

“I’m always so proud at the end of a project, when I see where they started, and the work that they have put into it, and where they end up,” says Hughes, who loves to work with those who find dance initially difficult to grasp just as much as those with natural rhythm such as Halle Bailey and Melissa McCarthy. “A lot of actors will say ‘I can’t dance, how can I learn this in such a short time’ but I always say you can learn ‘a dance.’ (They are probably) not going to dance professionally but here’s the dance we are going do and you can definitely learn this. It’s really exciting, and thrilling, to see them find their confidence and find the joy in it. To see where you begin, and where you end up, can sometimes be a big jump, so that’s really fun.”

Dance Is Great for Mindfulness

Creating a masterpiece in movement, like “The Little Mermaid” involves a three-month rehearsal process. “We usually dance all day,” explains Hughes, who worked with a 6-dancer skeleton crew to set the movement on, and then rehearsed with the actors for their particular steps.

While not everyone who fancies the idea of picking up dance as an activity will find themselves on the big screen, Hughes also works with the rest of us; people that are focused on improving their mind-muscle connection.

“Both of my parents have Parkinson’s disease,” she shares. “I created this program called ‘Inside Out’ and I do workshops and masterclasses, and retreats, and I basically combine meditation and dance movement.” Through dance, Hughes says that she has experienced first-hand, the improvements that her dance clients can achieve in terms of cognition and balance, and generating better outcomes for those suffering with depression or other ailments. “I think we can get in our heads too much,” she says. “And dance, instantly, puts you into the body. So, you can relax the mind, and the worry, and the stress. Then, you are connected to your breath, you are connected to music. I just feel like dance is an immediate connector.”

So, if you are already humming “Under the Sea” to yourself while excitedly planning your trip to the cinema, your mood could be boosted even further with this beginners dance meditation exercise that the “The Little Mermaid” co-choreographer has put together for Hers readers. “This one is for people who want to release tension and stress, and feel a connection to their inner wisdom and peace,” she says.

5-Step Dance Meditation from ‘Little Mermaid’ Choreographer Tara Nicole Hughes

5 simple steps to dancing bliss…

  1. Take off your shoes
    Feeling the floor beneath your feet gets you in touch with the support that is there for you always. Allow your body weight, energy, and any tension or worry to fall into the ground and melt away.
  2. Dim the lights so that this is an internal experience
    You want to be cocooned and safe in your own private world. This is not about perfect moves or performing outwardly, it’s not about judging yourself and deciding whether you are “good” at dancing or not.  Closing your eyes helps to tune into yourself and your own journey.
  3. Start your beautiful journey of discovery, reflection, and expression
    Set an intention for how you’d like to feel and what you’d like to get out of this dance meditation. Maybe you’d like to let go of something, bring in something new, reframe a difficult situation. Or maybe you just want to feel good! Whatever it is, state it internally or out loud.
  4. Put on a song or album that you love
    Pop music with lyrics can be fun but a soundscape feel that is more about the mood and less about the words can be helpful for getting out of your head. Play it on repeat or with a continuous stream so that you are not interrupted with an abrupt ending.
  5. Let yourself go
    Close your eyes, let the music move your body and don’t be afraid to let yourself go. This is a wonderful practice in surrendering to “what is”. Let the energy flow as your body heats up and let instinct guide the way, allowing your body to move in different ways, shapes and expressions. Let any worry or tension fall away.

Then, when you feel like you are done, stand still with your eyes closed, as you feel your body vibrate and tingle with energy. Many times, I go to my journal afterwards to write down any inspirations or insights that came forward. Dance is a gift. Enjoy it!

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