Project Description

May 6, 2020 | By Amanda Sieradzki

Community In Conversation
New Initiative Supports Local Artists
Through Healing Movement 

. . .  

As the two-month mark of stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing precautions approaches, many people may feel lost and isolated as their bodies and minds reside somewhere inside the seven stages of grief — shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and hope. 

Helen French, a member of the St. Petersburg Dance Alliance, can relate. She recalls sitting in an advisory committee meeting for the Pinellas Arts Community Relief Fund early on and wondering what help she could provide under these exceptional circumstances.

She felt the community was not only in need of financial aid, but of physical and emotional support as well. Her mind wandered to the times throughout her dance career when she needed similar assistance, and how she always turned to Shila Tirabassi LaGrua, a neurosomatic therapist and owner of the Body Center in St. Pete. 

One phone call later, “A Community That Moves Together, Heals Together” emerged. Joining forces, LaGrua and French’s two-week initiative kicked off Monday, April 27 and features a lineup of diverse somatics practitioners and dance teachers who have donated their time to the community. Thirty-minute virtual classes are conducted daily on Zoom and the suggested $10 donations all go to benefit the Pinellas County Artist Relief Fund

“We’re moving so we’re not stuck in this,” says LaGrua. “The type of movement modalities that we offer are perfect for the kind of healing that people need right now. We need to be grieving and grounding and subtly exploring these places inside. Giving is receiving right now.” 

Classes are set to continue through Friday, May 8. Themes have spanned proper breathing techniques, balance and chair movements, yoga for the upper body, and releasing tension. Uplifting jazz and hip-hop classes add variety and class times range from morning to evening.

“There’s something about being helpful that makes you feel hopeful,” says French, who has found solace in this new virtual teaching space. “I feel the most hopeful when I’m actually helping someone else.” 

Eighteen participants tuned in for the first class hosted by LaGrua focused on “Grounding,” which gave them a chance to find rootedness in a time where it is easy to disassociate from the environment given high levels of stress and anxiety. LaGrua zeroed in on waking up all aspects of the legs — front, side, and back — and ended with a grounding meditation to lower internal focus and energy levels. 

“The class for me was about connecting to our foundation in a way that makes us feel safe,” says LaGrua, whose lesson was heavily based in yogic practices. “If you don’t have the floor beneath you it’s a very scary feeling. I wanted to bring everyone’s energy down to their root energy center, which speaks to security — financial security, our homes, our health and our bodies.”

French’s “Head, Shoulders, Knees, Toes,” restored balance and poise using The Alexander Technique, a methodology created by actor Frederick Alexander to support movement efficiency and overall physical well-being. Rather than beginning with the feet, she took a top-down approach, leading a self-massage at the base of the skull, then releasing the shoulders and unfolding the joints before finishing with foot opening exercises. 

Shila LaGrua

“We don’t realize how much releasing tension from the skull resonates down the spine,” says French. “I feel like we’re all out here living on the edge of our bubbles, and I wanted to get us back inside of ourselves. As we release things, things can come up — and while those are wins, emotions can be overwhelming.”

Both have witnessed breakthroughs in their classes as participants experience intense connections via movement, and release negativity. French recalled how a subtle pelvic shift during LaGrua’s class opened her up to a well of emotions — and both emphasize the benefits these practices hold for the community going forward. 

“From the outside eye it doesn’t look like we’re doing much physically, but it’s this internal exploration that has a healing aspect to it and an awareness that brings us closer to ourselves,” explains LaGrua. 

LaGrua says participants have ranged from college students to older adults, and classes are open to all ages and abilities. They’ve averaged a dozen people daily and donations are nearing the $1,000 mark. French adds that you don’t have to donate to take the class, and likewise are not required to take the class to donate. All proceeds go towards the relief fund which will open up its next round of applications on May 11. 

While their official class schedule ends this week, the spark that ignited the initiative continues to glow with possibilities of entering the final grieving stage — hope. 

“It has occurred to me that this is an ongoing situation that we’re in, and healing starts not when it’s over but while it’s happening,” says French. “We don’t have to wait until we’re allowed to leave the house again to start healing ourselves from the trauma.”  

“This pandemic made us all slow down, but my hope is to hold on to this a little bit so we’re not going to jump back into the rat race and be overstressed and anxious,” adds LaGrua. “I really want to use this as a lesson with a greater sense of living for ourselves.”  

. . .  

To access the class schedule and donation link, please visit
bodycenterstpete.com/a-community-that-moves-together-heals-together/.

You can make a donation to help working artists hit hard by quarantine at

pinellascf.org/grants/arts-relief