by Lee Gutowski
The Art of Living Dynamically: Barb Wesson’s Winding Trail to Nia-land
Barb Wesson is a dancing, dreaming dynamo. The Nia Technique teacher has lived in Riverwest since 1999, and for years has been manifesting her goals and helping others achieve theirs by teaching them the art of “mind-body fitness.”
So what exactly is Nia? “It’s a fitness class – definitely an aerobic workout,” Wesson explains.
“It harnesses the power of expressive movement, and gives a sense of peace and joy. In Nia, we don’t push ourselves to the point of pain in the body workout. And there’s an unexplainable side of Nia – there’s a profundity to it.” The practice calls on elements from nine different movement forms, each carrying its own unique energy. Nia draws from the Japanese martial art of Aikido (a word that means “unifying life energy”); Isadora Duncan-style dance (incorporating free and natural movement as opposed to the traditionally rigid ballet technique of Duncan’s predecessors); the improvisation found in jazz, and aspects of the healing arts like yoga, in which “your movement floats up through your spine,” as Wesson puts it.
Barb actually brought Nia to Wisconsin in 1997, when she was the first one to teach it here. Her career path led her quite naturally to the practice, although by an organically circuitous route. “I’ve not had a ‘real job’ since 1993, so really I’ve been an entrepreneur for 22 years now,” she says of her experiences. “I used to have a weight management counseling business. Basically, I had to say to people, ‘no, don’t eat that,’” she laughs. “It was really more like helping people make choices about the food they ate.” She also worked in brain injury treatment for five years and at a coffee shop for another five.
But it was the weight counseling job that led her to Nia. One of her clients had been to a workshop and experienced Nia for one hour. “My client came back from that class and told me ‘this is what you have to do.’ She offered to pay for me to start studying Nia.” Apparently, her client really “saw (Barb) in Deb Kern,” one of the founders of Nia along with Carlos Rosas.
Wesson began her Nia training in 1997; the “new” discipline has snowballed since, and more than 200 people have now been trained to be Nia teachers. “There are five levels of training … and the first level is all about learning its foundation, which is very deep and rich.” The workout style became her passion, and her devotion to it helped her develop her full time career. There was a point when she was teaching 15-17 classes a week all over the region – in West Bend, Fort Atkinson, Watertown, Kohler, Racine. “I’ve taught people in wheelchairs Nia. It’s a workout for your body, mind, emotions and spirit.” Done to music, a Nia class resembles a dance/aerobics class, but without the relentless “no pain, no gain” mentality and with more emphasis on the mind-body connection.
In typical dynamo fashion, Barb is an energetic student as well as teacher. She has folded her interests and capabilities into a unique lifestyle that melds her entrepreneurship with the pursuit of higher education. She studies CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) at UWM through the College of Health Sciences and is working on her Ph. D dissertation. She “manifested somebody paying me to work on my dissertation” when she recently got offered the outcomes coordinator job at Core/El Centro (“a non-profit organization that offers individuals of all income levels access to natural healing therapies,” as described on their website) at 130 W. Bruce Street in Walker’s Point, where she’s been teaching Nia for 13 years.
“I started as a volunteer (at Core), and was only going to do it for 3 months or so. Thirteen years later, I’m still teaching – and there were 36 people in my class this morning!” Wesson goes on to tell the story of how she learned Spanish in order to enhance her teaching abilities at Core/El Centro, where a large contingent of her students are native Spanish speakers. “I used to have an interpreter in my classes, but I got sick of having to rely on that, so in 2006 I went to Mexico for 6 weeks to learn Spanish. Now I’m fluent in ‘Nia Spanish’ and I’m conversational.”
Wesson also leads Nia classes in her Riverwest home. She and Paul, her husband of 30 years, bought their cozy 2-story house on Weil Street after stints living in both Riverwest and Bay View. “We had been on a 3 year land contract to farm in Hartford, but we changed our minds and decided not to continue. So we sold all our stuff and moved to Milwaukee.” They had started “falling in love with Riverwest” and first moved into a 4-room apartment that was in a bit of disrepair. “The toilet at that place was falling through the floor,” Wesson laughs. The couple even went to house sit for a while in Bay View, but “the neighborhood down there didn’t speak to us like Riverwest does.” Despite those first less-than-perfect accommodations, Barb and Paul were hooked. They bought their home here in 2005.
“Our last tenant in the house moved out a few years ago. So we converted this place, since I wanted to have a studio in the house, mainly for training.” Barb offers classes at her place on Thursday afternoons and Friday mornings. “When it’s nice out in the summer we sometimes move to Big Bay Park and dance on the bluff.”
Barb’s colorful, comfortable first-floor studio is adorned with work by local artists as well as objects from around the world. She shows me her raw opal collection that she purchased in Honduras on a recent trip there with Paul, where “we learned to scuba dive at the tender age of 50!” she jokes.
“I’m just having fun. I’m mean, I dance for a living, for goodness sake!”
Want to experience the joy and enthusiasm for yourself? Check out a class in Barb’s home studio, at 2550 N. Weil Street, where she offers Nia-style fun from 4:30-5:30 pm on Thursdays and 8:30-9:30 am on Fridays. Classes are only $8, and you can purchase an eight-class pass for a discounted price of $52. Find Barb’s complete schedule (including information on her offerings at Core/El Centro) at, or call her at 414.467.5862.