A few simple steps to a stride that looks as good as it feels.
Long ago I spent five happy summers at a girls camp in Maine, where a badge of success was the brown felt "posture band" awarded to poised little ladies-in-training who walked with lovely straight backs. I must have gotten one at some point, but I can only remember the "improvement bands" that signaled I still had some work to do.
Acting on the theory that there's always room to better yourself, I recently decided to learn how to walk in a way that's both graceful and grounded, fluid and pulled up—in a word, goddesslike. I wouldn't want to vamp it up too much, but I admire the "look at me" way that models move on the runways. I figure it would be nice to convey a similar sense of sureness. A goddess might come by this kind of pizzazz naturally, but models take lessons to make it down that narrow catwalk with all eyes on them in five-inch heels—flashbulbs going off at a blinding rate—looking like they own the universe. So for tips I contact Willi Ninja, a top international model coach who has shared the runway with Iman, vogued in the movie Paris Is Burning, and danced alongside Madonna in her "Don't Bungle the Jungle" benefit. For company I enlist my daughter, Hillary, whose main goal is to learn to move her body in a healthier way.
We convene in the gym of a Manhattan high-rise. Willi is tall, with dark, shoulder-length ringlets sticking out from under a black skullcap. Dressed in a bright orange tank top that displays the finely tuned muscles of a dancer, he's a stunning sight as he demonstrates various walks—from the robotic to the prancing pony. That's the entertainment. Then we get down to the work.
Willi warns us against the most common ungoddesslike faults: hunching, rushing, and not fully extending the legs. To learn the Willi way, the two of us stand against the wall and work on aligning the back of the head, shoulders, rear end, and ankles. Then Hillary and I each amble "naturally" toward a full-length mirror. I am wearing flat shoes and I look like I'm slogging through snow. Hillary looks better, but Willi says we are each bending our front knee as we step forward—the walking version of slumped shoulders. In the next hour, we learn how little it takes to transform a trudge into an "entrance" without looking stagy or self-conscious. Here's the drill.
The head: Hold your head so that your chin is horizontal with the floor (you should be able to look yourself in the eye in a mirror).
The stride: Fully extend your front leg with each step. To first get the feeling, exaggerate the motion by kicking your leg out as you step.
The arms: Let your arms swing back and forth comfortably (but not too much).
The pace: Willi's most useful walking tip refers to pace. "Slow down to convey power and attitude," he says. As Hillary and I take our "graduation" walks toward the mirror, we extend our front legs and check our speed. The changes are subtle: Our walks don't say "look at me," but we stride more confidently than we did before.
Next: Suffering from foot or leg pain? 4 special steps to try
A modified catwalk style will not be of much use if our inner goddesses are suffering from severe foot pain. For that we need a more efficient, physiologically based system. My source is Roy Siegel, D.C., a Manhattan chiropractor who has treated thousands of professional dancers, runners, and other world-class athletes. He, too, advises first checking your posture by positioning your back against a wall with your chin parallel to the floor.
The shoulders: Rather than throwing your shoulders back like a runway model, hold them out to the side and down.
The hands: Turn your thumbs forward, which will keep your shoulders open.
The head: To lengthen the neck and spine, imagine that your head is floating above your shoulders.
The feet: You'll know when you're walking with a gait that's good for your body when you can feel your entire foot "moving through the arch and pushing off with the big toe," Siegel says. (This is an experience you are unlikely to have in high heels.)
The pace: Siegel advises a moderate pace when feasible and warns that on long walks, moving too slowly puts extra stress on your joints. A brisk pace—gliding, not bobbing up and down—is optimal.
I still don't deserve a posture band, but I've begun to use some of my tutors' walking tips. I try to remember to rotate my thumbs forward to open up my shoulders, and to keep my head level and floating. I am seeking a chic backpack and a pair of walking shoes that let me feel my whole foot moving. Hillary and I have both made a point of modifying our pace unless we have to get somewhere in a hurry. (Truth in reporting: We live in New York City, where speed is almost always the goal.) It would be nice to inspire the awe that a goddess does and make an impression on everyone I pass, but even if no one notices, I have found that an unhurried walk makes me feel more in command of my body and calms my mind.