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Harnessing movement and mindset as medicine through dance: Nelly Attar

Nelly Attar is a strong advocate of movement and its ability to change lives. 

The Lebanese dancer, Nike trainer, and award-winning founder of Saudi’s first dance studio Move, Nelly grew up with dance and movement all around her and made it her mission to give others that experience. 

“I can’t remember myself without dance and movement. Dance was always a part of the family gatherings, meetings with my friends, and also at school. I used to dance at performances and it was just who I always was and who I am today.”

With an MSc in Psychology, Nelly worked as a life coach and mental health expert for several years, with dance as a constant companion in the background. She offered dance and fitness classes as a part-time gig, yet was feeling unfulfilled with the way she was doing it. 

“When the idea for Move came to me, it was more than a business. I think it was born out of curiosity, a little bit of boredom, unfulfillment, and me wanting to have an outlet to move more, wanting to connect with others that like to move.”

With the help of her family and many encouraging conversations with friends, she first opened up the studio in a warehouse space that her stepfather let her use, and began to give free dance and fitness classes on the Nike Training Club

“My stepfather refurbished the place, I used a small speaker and got a portable mirror. The room was not done, we didn’t have AC in the room. Eighteen girls showed up for the first class and we were all sardines in one room trying to move!”

Nelly grew the initiative one day at a time until she launched the studio in 2017, welcoming more expatriates living in Saudi and, eventually, more Arabs and then Saudi’s themselves who were opening up to the idea of dance as a way to stay fit. 

Along with this success, she had to navigate many barriers and fears. “There was a fear of how people are going to respond to dance, and at the time when we started Move, female gym licensing was nonexistent – female gyms were still considered illegal.”

Today, they are situated at the heart of Riyadh and have built a tribe that keeps coming back. Move offers various programs including yoga, running clubs, adventure trips, and more. Their main goal is to bring together women of all ages and fitness levels to support, train, and guide them to thrive as dancers across multiple genres.

Negative emotions and experiences can be transformed into positive fuel. Studies show that physical activity aids immensely in better mental health, and is a conversation that many trainers and companies are attempting to drive home. Personally, Nelly focuses on her wellbeing through movement, especially as she navigates through grief after the recent passing of her father. 

“It was the biggest loss of my life, and I don’t know how I’m still doing the things that I do. But movement…movement really helps. Three days after my dad died, I trained. Even when I was with my dad in the hospital before he passed away, I danced for him.”

Fostering a physical connection to not only yourself but the environment around you is an essential part of a world that is now transfixed. “It’s been so therapeutic for me in so many ways. I have been healing through movement, whether it’s praying in movement, whether it’s training and moving. whether it’s dancing.”

As an athlete, Nelly is constantly pushing past her comfort zone, reaching for a new level of achievement through sports challenges and adventurous expeditions. She reached the top of Mount Everest in 2019 and has scaled 14 other peaks across the world. She has also taken part in marathons, scuba dives and is currently training for a climb in Denali, the highest peak in Alaska and North America. 

“Nothing worthwhile comes easy. When I’m climbing something like Everest, the training is very difficult. There is a lot of moments where I want to give up and a lot of moments where I’m battling with myself saying ‘This is too difficult! I can’t do this!’ and I fight back with ‘No you can do this, try, take one step forward Nelly, one step at a time, and that’s how it really unravels.”

Making the choice of movement is something we must all do for ourselves, and Nelly believes we should all approach fitness and training the way she does – like curious scientists looking to understand what works for us and what does not. 

Remember, “A training session that is not great is better than no training session. A training session that is half an hour long is better than no training or movement at all,” says Nelly. “On the days that I feel tired and don’t want to train, I find myself thinking of how I want to feel after.”

When she is moving, creative ideas and solutions to problems flow to her naturally. She is able to think clearly about her day and plan out things as it allows her to tune out from the outside world and focus on herself. 

The power of the mind and body when aligned are unmatched, allowing us to achieve almost anything we set our minds to, and this is a lesson Nelly aims to impart to her clients. 

“I always say these statements: it’s between you and you. Don’t look at anyone else, if you do, look at them to seek inspiration, but not to compare yourself. it’s between you and you, and I always say challenge yourself. When you think you have nothing left in you, you probably still have 80 percent left in you.”