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Lessons Learned Heather Boni

Lessons Learned
By Corinna Nicolaou

To sit in the Commons with Heather Boni, a senior majoring in dance and psychology, is to be in the presence of a barely containable energy that seems to be buzzing and fizzing just beneath the surface of her skin. One gets the impression she’d rather be tapping than talking and that, in fact, she could communicate quite well if given the opportunity to use movement instead of words: her life story in a dance routine.
It began in her hometown of Winnemucca, Nev., where her mom recognized early that her bundle of joy was extra lively and enrolled her in physically-demanding activities like soccer and gymnastics. By seventh grade, Boni had fallen in love with jazz and tap dance classes. Her repertoire quickly expanded to include ballet, hip-hop and modern dance. In high school, she joined the dance team and soon was the captain, a position that allowed her to try her hand at choreography.
She was honing her body and disciplining her mind. Like all serious dancers, she trained every day, some days getting up before school to get in an hour or two of rehearsal before class. After school, she danced well into the evening. Weekends were an opportunity for more practice.
Looking back, she sees that movement was a strategy to stay calm. The onset of her teenage years coincided with a spike in the national anxiety level: terrorism, new forms of instant media and unpredictable weather patterns. For people who are naturally high-strung, these facts can stress an already nervous constitution, and exercise can be an excellent way to keep negative thoughts from spiraling out of control -- pirouettes in place of Prozac.
When it was time for college, Boni knew she needed to keep moving, but she also wanted to get the most out of her college experience. The University of Idaho was the perfect fit: its well-balanced dance department requires students to take courses in a range of topics such as anatomy, physiology and kinesiology. In addition, Boni could study psychology. After so much focus on the body, she was ready to learn more about the mind.
It has been at the intersection of dance and psychology that she has found her true passion for using movement as a tool to promote physical and mental health. Her psychology courses have given her insight into how life stages and physical ability affect development, which influences a person’s spatial awareness, motor skills and coordination. All of this has led her to the conclusion that movement really can help the mind. In one fascinating project, she and a classmate developed an interactive DVD and workbook to help children cope with feelings of anxiety. Building on an existing children’s book about a character called Fidget whose abundant energy manifests physically, Boni and her partner took it to the next level. They developed a simple curriculum to help Fidget, and anyone like him, find a more peaceful mind-set. The exercise turns FIDGET into an acronym that stands for “Focus, Inhale, Drink a glass of water, Get some rest, Expect the best, Think happy” and gives overwhelmed students the tools to take control of anxious thoughts by redirecting attention to their bodies. The DVD was evaluated by a second-grade teacher in Twin Falls, and garnered positive reviews from both teacher and students.
While Boni enjoys the sheer artistry of dance, she’s happiest when movement can be used as a way to improve lives. She finds pure joy in teaching curious adults and University students who have never worn tap shoes how to ”shuffle-hop-step.”
“They are studying all different subjects, like forestry,” she says. “They’re here for fun, and not so caught up in the technical aspects of dance. It’s refreshing.”
She also interned at a local elementary school for a class called “Creative Movement.” The program was developed as an alternative to traditional physical education and allows creative movement to be integrated into schools as a way to promote the benefits of physical activity while removing the competitive edge associated with sports. Creative movement uses physicality as a teaching method. For example, kids might form the shapes of letters with their bodies or count by moving to different rhythms.
“Children are natural dancers whether they realize it or not,” she says. “They are always moving.”
Boni plans to pursue a graduate degree, though in what field is still to be determined. She’s leaning towards dance movement therapy, though she counts only six programs in the U.S. that offer the degree, so she may pursue physical therapy with an emphasis on dance. Regardless, she sees herself working with children, and perhaps the elderly, using movement as a complement to traditional physical therapy. After a carefully choreographed life, she says she can’t fully control how this next phase unfolds.
She wrapped up her last big performance recently. After dancing in student productions and choreographing pieces that highlight her many talents from ballet to modern dance, she says the last show returns to one of her first loves -- tap -- and explores a lighthearted subject: getting something gooey stuck on the bottom of your shoes. Inspiration is everywhere, she says, pointing to the students on their way to class, “even in the way they shuffle and move under the weight of their backpacks.”
Then, just like that, she jumps up and whirls away.