It’s Friday and this means we get to share another #FEMMEFEATUREFRIDAY! Our incrediblly inspirational woman this week is Marja Lankinen. Marja, a former professional dancer, is now a kickass entrepreneur, writer, Reiki master, and yoga therapist extraordinaire. This woman is such a leading example of perseverance, dedication and passion, and she is always so generous with her loving energy. Her journey was not always easy and she has courageously used those ups and downs to find her voice and create something magical that serves others.

Throughout her dance career, Marja has worked for Beyoncé, Oprah, the Billboard Awards, the Grammys, Frank Gatson, and Laurieann Gibson, and she has been featured in music videos with Twista and The Lumineers. Marja has also performed on an international tour in Asia, was a three year company member of Boom!Crack Dance (hip hop company in residency with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago), and was the Executive Director of Dance2XS Dance Company in Michigan.

Marja discovered a deep passion for teaching yoga over the years, and she's dedicated her life's work to healing others through the yoga practice. She strongly believes in the power of meditation and personal wellbeing, and Marja Lankinen decided to create her company called Yoga for Dancers. Y4D is a class style deliberately built to support dancers’ health and wellness for longevity and elite performance. Marja has spent hours and hours training, traveling, and perfecting her skills as a yoga therapist, and she spreads the important message that to be the best artist one can be, there must be a deep connection to self, a support network of likeminded people, and a clear vision for where one is going. Through mental imagery, clear goal setting, and a physical practice set in a community-building environment, Y4D is a one stop shop in giving dancers the extracurricular tools they need to succeed in a professional career and to maintain a healthy body.

We are absolutely thrilled to have Marja share her inspiring story with our YGTGirls. What an incredible journey, what an incredible heart! Thank you for sharing your struggles, how you felt with what you went through, and how you came out of it more empowered than ever!

Artwork by Chloe Bruderer (@chloeheartsart)

Artwork by Chloe Bruderer (@chloeheartsart)

How did 'Yoga for Dancers' come into existence? What initially inspired you to start it, and what keeps you going with your work week after week?

In 2008, I was dancing for a hip hop company in Chicago and feeling less than empowered about myself. Constant struggle taught me the fight and persistence I have today, but three years of failing daily was starting taking a toll on my heart. I found myself in yoga more regularly. It felt like coming back to myself. I didn't know it then, but it became a place I learned to rebuild a relationship that, without my knowing how much, had fallen apart. Now, almost a decade later, I work almost exclusively with artists supporting their trajectories in the industry. When I teach, I see next generations of visions and voices. I also see variations on my past experiences. At some point in my life, I was the person sleeping on someone's couch, eating the bare minimum because I didn't have the funds, giving my power to the lowest bidder. I was them. They are me. We speak the same language, and, while I no longer pursue the world of professional dance, the professional dancer is my muse. Every time I teach, I ask, "how is your body?" The regular response of "broken, exhausted, and tired" focuses my modus operandi, my lens, my work so that, like a mad scientist, I obsess on best practices for the body. Continued education in therapeutics, biomechanics, neuroscience, psychology, and anatomy teach me tools I can use, so that when asked, "how is your body?," my community answers differently. 

What was one of the hardest challenges that you faced in your dance career?

Once, my director said, "you know exactly who you are as person. You have no idea who you are as a dancer." Dance itself has been a love affair since day one. Day one happened to be when I was 21. My late start allowed me to come up as the perpetual underdog. I had to fight just to stay afloat, so I would take the Megabus from Ann Arbor to Chicago for an Ian Eastwood workshop. I eventually moved to Chicago by way of that same Megabus and one suitcase. Leaving Ann Arbor - the solitary place on earth that truly felt like home - to pursue a dream no one else believed in but me was one of the greatest heartbreaks of my life. But, my heart knew I had to go. While in Chicago, I often cried in the bathroom after rehearsals. I took every class I could to get one degree better. I hopped planes to train in LA. No money, but one hundred classes in one month at Debbie Reynolds later, I called my dance director back in Chicago to tell him of my triumph. To my elation, he said, "I don't care if you take a thousand classes. Learn your fucking lesson in just one." While it has been over a decade and figuring out who I am as a dancer is still a conversation I don't have the answer to, I am no longer apologetic about the person I am. I exist in the interim between the question and the answer, and I have learned to love - as of my favorite poets, Rudy Fransisco, writes - "the parts of myself that no one claps for." 

What advice would you give to a woman who is in the hustle of chasing her wildest dreams?

I learned early in my life to create a space in my heart where no one else gets to go. Maya Angelou taught me that I may have best friends, lovers, business partners, people that gain entrance into the deeper catacombs of my soul, but, as I have learned the hard way: keep something sacred. Keep something that remains space for your wearied heart on the days that life throws you heartbreak, when all roads go south, when the director demands you to be everything but what you are. There are some lost souls in this industry. Once, I was one, too. But, I learned to build a home in the deepest recesses of myself so that it doesn't matter if the ride is smooth or speed bump after wildfire, all roads bring me back home. So, to the dream chasers, fire starters, visionaries, and voices that need a seat at the table, I say: live wild, unapologetic, and outside of the confines of normalcy and a mediocre existence. But, in that wild ride, let there be one lonely road that points you back home. 

What are some of the ways that you channel your feminine energy in your life and/or career? In what ways is your femininity a strength? 

I AM a channel. I believe we all are; it's just clearing out the noise so we see what is really going on, what is truly important, and where we are meant to go next. Meditation helps me. So does writing poetry. I find that I am most successful when I let my Type A brain lose. If she is the hare, my heart becomes the tortoise in a race I let my heart win daily. She is the bad ass, the farmer and the seed. She believes in pipe dreams. She is the dreamer and the dream. I used to be shy. I used to aim to please. I used to let people say Marja the wrong way, but a poet once told me, "never let them mispronounce your name," so I've come to wear my femininity like a name tag. A tattoo. A blessing. A legacy. I often inquire, "what will I teach my daughter?" I now know I will teach her how to say her own name. 

In all capital letters.