Creating art with our bodies –contemporary dance with CJ Bernal

Defying gravity

Photo: Tina Larkin

“To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak,” says a Hopi Indian proverb.

If the saying is true, there was a meeting of happy hearts on Saturday March 17th at Taos Academy of Dance. In CJ Bernal’s contemporary dance class, students and instructor slid around the wood floor with rhythmic movements.

“Classes like this one allow people to get more joyful energy into their lives,” said Adair Landborn, co-director of the Academy. “And CJ is great; a hip improvisational instructor.”

Bernal said he uses dance to create a personal “presence of movement” within the students. “I want people to discover what really interests them, to find their passion and communicate it through the dance,” he said.

This fusion class mixes elements from seemingly dissimilar styles like ballet and hip-hop. “I borrow exercises from different lineages of dance and use them in choreographies where dancers express themselves and their emotions,” Bernal said.

The lesson starts with a vigorous warm-up routine. “Though I focus on core strengthening, we also pay attention to specific body parts like the hamstrings,” Bernal said. “Flexibility and balance are big issues here, but the most important thing is the way people react to the dance and interpret it. I encourage my students to try different movements and techniques until they become their own.”

The warm-up section is followed by choreography, when the creative process of improvisation takes place. “You can dance for pleasure, for health and as a way of freeing the body, and that’s where improv plays a key role,” said Bernal. “My students interpret the music and add their own touches, their personal styles.”

Bernal is originally from British Columbia, Canada, but his connection to Taos is in his blood—his father was born in Taos Pueblo. Bernal, who is 23 years old, lived in New York and Colorado after leaving his country.

He was part of an ensemble of dance at Neropa University in Boulder, Colorado, for three years. “I danced full time, several hours a day,” he said. “I did lots of shows there until I decided to move toNew Mexico.”

He credits Cara Reeser, his mentor, with helping him find the rhythm and vitality of dance inside his own body. Reeser, the owner of two Pilates studios and a dance company in Colorado, currently teaches courses in dance and movement studies at Naropa University.

“She had a huge influence in my life by teaching me how to bring myself into my body,” Bernal said. “She taught me to identify my strong points and my limitations because a dancer needs to be well aware of both. With Reeser, I also learned to allow my body to guide me while I moved. Now I try to transmit all that knowledge to my students.”

The dancers talk

“I went to CJ’s performance at theHarwoodMuseuma few weeks ago and I immediately knew that I was going to attend this class and learn from him,” said Elizabeth Sanchez, from Arroyo Seco. “I love coming here and dancing every Saturday.”

Sanchez said that she enjoys being in a relaxed environment, in the company of other dancers. “And I get to use all my muscles,” she said. “It is good exercise, too.”

“I have been raising kids for thirteen years,” said Charly Carasso, “and I was looking forward to taking a class like this. It helps me drop into my body and move from an authentic place inside. Here, when you are dancing, you experience a connection with yourself.”

Fitness for all

Bernal has had students from fifteen to fifty years old. “No requirements are needed,” he said. “I am happy to guide the young and the old through the process of strengthening themselves and getting more comfortable with their bodies.”

Movement can help people not only physically, but emotionally as well, said Bernal. “Several students have told me that they felt happier and more relaxed after taking my class. I believe it is because we work with both muscles and minds.”

Dancing itself is an artistic pursuit, Bernal said. “I don’t dance because it is athletic, I dance because movement is art,” he said. “This has been my motto for a long time.”

Bernal believes in the therapeutic value of dance.

“People often experience a release when they dance,” he said. “I want to make them aware of the physicality of their nature. In our culture, we lack connection with our bodies and tend to live too much in our minds.”

Bernal admits that this is an active class, with a lot of sweating involved. But not all sweats are created equal. “Players sweat when they are playing football,” he said. “But that is a competition that will end up with winners and losers. Here, we are creating art with our own bodies. We all win.”

Bernal has worked with different dance companies in the past but he prefers more intimate settings now, he said. “I am very grateful to TaDa! for giving us the space and the encouragement to go on with the classes. I want to share my passion for dance with the community and this is a great place to do that.”

CJ Bernal’s Contemporary Dance class takes place on Saturdays from 10:30 am to 12 noon.

Taos Academy of Dance Arts is located at 2 Upper Las Colonias Rd.
El Prado, NM 87529
Phone: 575-758-7303
To find out about other classes and their schedule visit
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