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For many, attending dance classes is a way to form and nurture close bonds with friends, but what happens when we share those uplifting—and at times challenging---experiences with a family member? In the case of two Ailey Extension instructors, bringing their mothers to dance classes helped to strengthen their bonds and positively transformed the health and well-being of their moms.

Ailey Extension instructor Karen Arceneaux first started dancing when she joined a high school dance team. Despite her mother Catherine Gipson’s warnings about choosing a career in the arts, Karen switched her college major from chemistry to dance after seeing girls in pink tights leaving the dance building. “My mother finally decided to support me after my final performance in college,” she explained. “From there, I went on to get a certificate at The Ailey School, became an administrator, and I eventually started my own dance company. She has been my biggest fan through all of it.”

Now, Karen devotes part of her time to teaching Zumba® Fitness and Horton technique to students of all ages and abilities at the Ailey Extension. Catherine soon went from cheering in the audience to courageously signing up for one of her daughter’s heart-pumping and fast paced Zumba classes back in 2011. Karen reflected on how her sheer persistence to get her mother to take a class ultimately strengthened their relationship. She recalls, “It used to be such a fight to get my mom to come to classes. I would offer all the time to pick her up and take her to class, but she never came. Until one day, she did. Now she’s hooked, and not a Saturday will pass without her coming to Ailey with me.” While some may think it could be strange to have one’s own mother as a student in class, for Karen, having her in the studio has changed the classroom energy and has positively impacted all of her students. “It’s great to have my mom in class because I get to say, ‘If my mom can do it, so can you!,’” she explained. “It’s motivating for women her age because they encourage each other.”

Karen with her mother, Catherine, at the Ailey Studios.

Creator and instructor of the Masala Bhangra® Workout, Sarina Jain, was first introduced to dance as a young child. Her parents, both of Indian descent, made an effort to share their heritage with both their daughters by participating in activities within their local Indian community. “By default, my sister and I loved to dance,” she recalled. “So we were constantly doing the Bollywood, Bhangra and Raas/Garba dancing.”

Inspired by the vibrant cultural dance forms she learned in her youth, Sarina later turned her love for dance into a career by creating the Masala Bhangra Workout and, with the support of her mother, her work blossomed. “I don’t think my mother, Saroj, realized what I was doing at first, but she absolutely supported me in this project of mine that is now 15 years old and is one of the top five workouts in America today.”

Sarina with her mother, Saroj, at the Ailey Studios.

Sarina attributes her passion for her dance and fitness movement, in part, to the personal challenges and setbacks she, her sister and her mother have experienced. “My mother was 40 when my father passed away. The three of us have had each other’s backs ever since. My sister and I have always encouraged our mom to do something and to continue to live. It was one of those things where you shouldn’t die because he died as well. So we’ve encouraged her to let go, live, and enjoy things that she had always done.”

Sarina’s support of her mother reaped new rewards this year when Saroj took part in her first dance performance, the Ailey Extension’s World Dance Celebration. “What’s beautiful is that she turned 60 this year,” Sarina added.  While Saroj was at first hesitant to participate and doubted her ability to follow through, Sarina’s coaching showed Saroj how persistence can make any goal achievable. “I said to my mom, ‘You’ve come all this way, and you’ve come too far to give up.’ I’m so glad she was able to push through to finish three shows. She was exhausted, but she brought so much light to everybody else and had a blast doing it.”

Following the World Dance Celebration, Saroj was so inspired by her newfound drive that she pushed to reach another milestone—and completed all the levels of Masala Bhangra instructor training. She offered some words of encouragement to others: “If you really want to do it, don’t let anything get in your way. I used to feel funny dancing with my daughter and her friends, but when I started, it was so fun! It was an accomplishment, and I was like, ‘Wow, I did it!’ Basically, don’t look for any reasons not to!”

Sarina Jain teaching Masala Bhangra at the Ailey Extension. Photo by Kyle Froman

Sarina shared her own words of wisdom for mothers and daughters who are hesitant to start dancing or exercising: “Whether you are 30 or 60, every woman wants to feel beautiful. Every woman wants to feel sexy! I’ve seen this with all my students, and I’ve seen this throughout my own family—everyone wants to look good. In order to look good, you’ve got to get up and exercise in some way, shape, or form. It is a great experience for mothers and daughters to go work out together, and to experience something totally out of their comfort zone. You’d be surprised to see what emotions come out of taking class together.”

Share an unforgettable experience with your mom at a Mother/Daughter SharQui Bellydance Class with Sharon Zaslaw on Sat May 9, or a Mother’s Day West African class with Nimatoulaye Camara on Sun May 10 from 5-6:30pm.

Interviews conducted by Christina Daniels. Blog article by Chandra Jackson.

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