Taoseños discover their own wellness at The Body Shop

‘No force can stop you'

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Julia Fernandez de Maez starts her workday in an empty and cavernous mirror-lined studio. The sun still isn't up.

But by 5 a.m., she's already got music going and bodies moving.

The Body Shop is a new venue for Taoseños to find their way to wellness with classes that are both fast-paced and motivational, cost-conscious and holistically supportive. Located in the Cabot Plaza in Taos' downtown, the studio-gym hybrid is about "integrating fitness and dance" while "bringing a whole new level of variety to Taos," said Fernandez de Maez.

Victoria Carballo and Fernandez de Maez teach burlesque and belly dance, flamenco, Zumba and fitness inspired by the intensity, empowerment and physical challenges of mixed martial arts.

"The vision is this simple: Have it accessible to everyone," said Fernandez de Maez, a native Taoseña and longtime flamenco dancer.

To that end, the price of most classes maxes out at just $10 and even package deals like the four-week "boot camp" are flexible. The classes are also concentrated at the beginning and end of the day to accommodate more people and their busy schedules filled with work, family and all the other chores and challenges of daily life.

But The Body Shop is not a one-size-fits-all workout schedule, meal plan or motivational program. The people who run it don't sacrifice individual attention for convenience. Because like Fernandez de Maez's hometown, the people who make up her community are complex.

"It's a safe place," she said, for people to answer the question: "What's been holding you back from taking a chance on your dreams?"

Depression, dependency on drugs and alcohol, chronic health problems and domestic violence are issues lots of Taoseños have to deal with and heal from in order to get a sense of wellness in the body, mind and heart.

"I talk with every one of my people every single day," she said. And she tells them with relentless faith, "If you really, really want something, there's no force on this earth other than death that can stop you."

'It saved my life'

Fernandez de Maez was born in 1985 to a family with deep roots in Taos. Though a love of dancing was a family tradition, it was a random invitation from a friend that got her into a flamenco class for the first time.

"I was really gung-ho about it," she said of flamenco, the showy form of moving arts that grew out of folk dances in Spain. Fernandez de Maez danced flamenco all across New Mexico from the time she was 17 until 2005, when she relocated to South Dakota with her boyfriend at the time.

"I thought everyone knew about flamenco and green chile. Talk about a cold slap in the face," she said.

The culture shock, along with other challenges, caused her to totally give up dancing for two years.

One day after working out, the owner of the gym she was going to noticed Fernandez de Maez practicing a few steps in an empty studio in front of the mirror. They didn't know that it was flamenco, but liked it - and her style - enough to offer a slot for teaching a class.

"I didn't know the first thing about teaching. I'd been working as a CDL driver, so I had to get up on the hood of the truck and just start talking to practice," she said. Three people showed up the first class. Two left during the presentation. One stuck it out. And within two years, she had 25 students and enough momentum to open her very first dance studio.

Unfortunately, it closed within nine months. But like all good entrepreneurs, Fernandez de Maez learned from her failures.

"I refused that that was the reality," she said. With a few creative ideas and "lots of video time," she launched an online fitness business. All the while, Fernandez de Maez was still practicing and learning, traveling more than 600 miles to the nearest flamenco classes in places like Minneapolis.

She eventually moved back to Taos and opened a flamenco studio three years ago. In June, she opened The Body Shop.

When Fernandez de Maez talks to her students about wellness and fitness - be that flamenco or other dance, MMA or meditation - she's not putting up a front.

"Flamenco, dance, fitness - it saved my life. At one point, I didn't have a [driver's] license or a GED. I dropped out, I was addicted to alcohol and I'd already seen the inside of the Taos County jail once," she said.

"So I've been there and I know the benefit it [dance] can have for people," she said.

Taking a chance

Classes at The Body Shop started in June and Fernandez de Maez said the business has seen swings of energy and participation, but the number of students - both adults and kids - has doubled in the last month or so.

It's clear that classes are more than "just a class." Instead, it is a time to "talk with the girls" and build each other up. But beyond the studio, Fernandez de Maez is creating a supportive environment, checking in on her students and trying to share some of the drive, faith and gumption that have gotten her to the place she is now.

"All business aside, I'm trying to do something to help people, to help my people better themselves mentally, spiritually and physically," she said.

"Fitness and wellness are all about taking a chance on your potential. If you're not pushing your potential, then you're stuck in a whirlpool. It's a fun ride for a minute, sure, but don't you want to see the rest of the river?"

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