A List of Things My Zumba Class Has Taught Me
1. Things cannot be mastered on the first try.
I know this sounds like common sense, like something my dad should have pulled me aside and told me over a cold glass of milk and an Oreo when I was eight years old. But, alas, my parents were perfectionists, too. They didn’t even have a vocabulary to tell their kids fucking up was a normal part of life. Back then,
fucking up was a matter of life and death. At least, that’s what it felt like to my traumatized six-year-old self. Life back then was a struggle to be the best at everything because being the best ensured you would go to college and not die in the streets like a pauper. And not dying in the streets like a pauper was a driving force in my life for a LONG time. This is what happens when you grow up in a poor but ambitious family: you are motivated by threats of dying penniless in the streets. My parents’ nightstands weren’t stacked with books about meditation. They didn’t have time in the morning to write in their pretty paisley journals about self-forgiveness. They were busy raising kids, and the only information THEY had was from THEIR parents, and THOSE guys were raised up in an era where you got a steely-eyed stare if you were lucky (and a thwack across the knuckles if you weren’t) for fucking up. Back then, you just pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and carried on. Generations later, I am administering the ruler to my OWN knuckles every time I screw up. And screw up I do. I am NOT patient with myself, either. The first time I tried Zumba, I was winded after the SECOND song. That’s approximately SIX minutes into the routine, y’all, and the routine goes for SIXTY. I had to sit it out. I had to lean up against one of those flesh-colored rubber punching dummies in case I passed out. I drank about a liter of water while sitting there and waited for my vision to come back into focus. I watched all the other women do the routines with ease. And I almost cried. CRIED! Because I didn’t know how to do it.
And here I am, more than a year later, with a pretty good handle on my counts, and my hip shaking, and my footwork. I’m not gonna lie. Taking those beginner salsa lessons all those years ago and those Cumbia lessons at hippie college REALLY helped with the footwork. But the first couple of times at Zumba class, I was as confused as a hippo in a raincoat. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Slowly, over time, I learned the routines. And the more I learned, the better I got at relaxing. And the better I got at relaxing, the better I got at learning the routines. Nobody died penniless in the streets at the end of my not knowing the routine. I’m pretty sure no one gave one shit about me looking stupid, either. It’s amazing how that whole cycle works. After the first time I got through all sixty minutes without wanting to throw up, I high-fived myself. I had just cured three generations of self-abuse by shaking my booty to a Pitbull song.
2, Time actually has to pass, like for reals, yo, in order for learning to take place.
Things get better with time. They do. After a few months of regular Zumba-ing, I could see some definition in my shoulders, in my arms. After a year (and after cutting gluten out of my diet) my jeans fit me differently. This is after a year
, though. There were many weeks I took off to travel, to work late, whatever. Dedication to a sport is not really my “thing”. My interests wane, I get distracted, I don’t fini- OO! LOOK! A BUTTERFLY!
So, yeah. Patience is not my strong suit. At least with myself. Sit me down in front of a 9,000 piece puzzle and it’s a different story. Patience is something I am still learning: patience with myself, patience with the length of time a true metamorphosis needs, patience with understanding that some metamorphoses take longer than others… Zumba will change you, but it will take time.
3. Exercise is addicting. Pain is real.
I had a bodyworker take a look at my knees and ask, Okay, so you’re not doing any high impact athletics, are you? And I was like, No way, man! Unless you count all that bouncing and stomping I do twice a week. So, yeah, Zumba equals slow murder on my knees. Lately, I’ve had to come home and ice them. They burn and sometimes keep me awake at night. I know there are other things one can do to get in shape, but I think it’s safe to say that I am officially addicted to my workout. The pain is such a minor price to pay for the reward of feeling good about myself. And the better I eat, the less pain I have.
You know how some people, when they talk about exercise, get all Tony Robbins on you and they swear YOU’VE JUST GOTTA TRY IT? You know why those people break out in a sweat the second they start talking about weightlifting or Kettlebells? It’s because they have metric tons of GOOD chemicals surging through their bodies! From exercising! You know what a sneaky bastard the body is? When you’re already feeling bad about yourself, your body bathes you in these chemicals that make you feel like one more trip to the snack cabinet isn’t really going to hurt. And when you work out, your body is all WHOOOOOOO! Nothing but baked salmon for me, please! I feel like I’m the king of the world!
That baked salmon? That’s where I am right this moment. The chemical composition of my body has changed. They don’t talk much about that in all those testimonials for weight lifting machines on the infomercials. Or, at least, I’ve never understood the positive feedback loop that happens when you exercise. It’s one thing to hear it from the mouths of the muscle-bound crazy-eyed types. It’s another thing entirely to actually experience it. I’m saying it here because I think the world needs to know this: your body will reward you with nicey-nice chemicals if you work out regularly. You will become this rambling idiot that can’t stop talking about the benefits of working out every day.
Now, I certainly don’t want to preach that ignoring pain is good. Pain is a signal that something ISN’T RIGHT. (Hey, thanks, arthritis! You’re awesome!) But, my pain (and physiology) can be managed. Don’t ignore your pain. Don’t let it keep you from getting in shape, either. The more you take care of yourself, the more your pain will lessen.
4. After mastery comes flair.
That’s right. Once I had mastered the original moves, it was time to add some LoLo flair to it all. I can do these tiny moves that make me feel like I’m dancing
and not just working out. Amazing, huh? I think so. And so does my instructor, because she asked me to get up there in the front of class and help her out one day. And it was so fun! Never mind that I almost snapped my ankle in two that one time because my knees were all “Um… hey, I thought you were going to step righ….. WHOA! WHOA! What the hell!?”
It’s nice to be able to dance in the front of the gym and provide some inspiration to the women in the back of the gym who are new to Zumba. I’ve had a handful of women come up to me and say “I dance behind you because I like watching you! You’re awesome at this!” Some have even mistaken me for a Zumba instructor! Now that I know what my knees are capable of, I can tweak my workout to give myself maximum benefit with minimal pain. Sometimes that includes working my ass extra hard to take the strain off my knees. And sometimes that means my hair defies gravity as I pump my fists into the air above me. Either way, it’s all about knowing thyself. And this-self knows that what I lack in jumping ability I can more than make up for in the rump-shaking department. Which looks awesome from the back of the gym, apparently.
5. I’ve kicked myself out of the Music Snob Club and it feels good.
If you knew me before I moved to Seattle, you might have thought that the only thing I listened to was sad, sad music. And you might have been right. This seems impossible given my love of all things soul and funk and electronic now, but back then, when it came to dancing, I was a real wallflower. An angry, mean wallflower. Back then, I danced alright, but only to indie stuff. And by dance I mean I threw all 120 pounds of myself, starting with my knees, hips, elbows, and other sharp parts, into some boys dressed mostly in black with long stringy hair and earrings. And I bounced up and down and pumped my fist in the air and screamed at the top of my lungs “A mosquito, my libido” and I considered myself part of an elite group of people who actually understood the meaning of those words (I didn’t).
Nowadays, I am actually a little appalled at how much electronic pop I listen to. It doesn’t help that I still look like I’m eighteen, too, so the whole picture of me pumping my arms out from my chest and scooting all low across a dancefloor looks… well, I don’t know how it looks. I hope it DOESN’T look like a petite, sweaty, red-faced woman approaching her cougar years getting WAY TOO excited about Katy Perry’s “Firework”. Scratch that. I actually don’t care at all. And neither does anyone else. Now isn’t that liberating?
My CD collection, full of moody tunes and cassette tapes labeled “music to write poetry to” sits in a box in my garage. I still love The Cure and all that great stuff that I swam around in great pools of melancholia to, but, it also feels pretty nice to smile while listening to music now. It feels nice to know I can count to four, that I can remember the transitions- no, not just that I can remember them, but that they come to me without thinking. Holy shit! I memorized something not involving the words “my lonely heart” and “the open road”! Go me!
6. Don’t judge a Dancer by her pants. You never know who’s wearing a prosthesis under there.
Okay, I don’t wear a prosthesis. But I DO get a little structural help in the form of patella bands when I dance. I strap myself into those things like they’re seat belts in a fighter jet about to leave for a bombing raid. I think I’ve surprised quite a few women in the class who have seen me during my pre-class prep. “You?” they ask. “Why do YOU need those things? You’re so young and healthy looking. What’s wrong? “Oh, that?”, I say. “That’s just a little genetic fuck-up that makes me a little unstable in the most important joint in my body. No biggie. I just use these thingees I bought at the drug store to make sure my legs don’t shoot out from under me while we’re stretching. That’s all.” The look in those ladies’ eyes when I reveal that I dance with my little foam and nylon helpers reminds me of something very important: we are all judging each other, all the time. And we have it all wrong, most of the time, so what’s the point? We presume that a perky smile and a brightly colored workout shirt means that all is right in the world with a woman. We presume that a neat pony tail and lean calves means that that woman is the apex of discipline and health. We presume that no one struggles and that some people are just inherently good at everything. We presume it’s only we who struggle. We presume so much about each other, and it never serves us. This isn’t something specific to Zumba, of course, but I am never around so many women at one time as I am in Zumba, and I am reminded at the gym of how very, very hard we are on ourselves and each other. This is what Zumba has taught me: the truth is way more refreshing. So, listen- let’s call an armistice on all this thinking everyone else is better than us. Let’s presume that even the best dancers have days when they can’t do their routines without assistance. Let’s starting peeking underneath everyone’s Capri-length lululemons and realizing that we’re all human underneath there- and that sometimes we need a little help, and that that’s OKAY. Let’s start approaching each other with our common frailties and vulnerabilities in mind and stop pasting our expectations of superiority over everyone’s Spandex.
The world is hard enough on us as it is- we don’t need to add to that by thinking that everyone is more perfect than we are. We’re all just fine. We’re all beautiful. So, some of us are off by a few beats. And some of us have a little more weight around our middles. So what? You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. Some days I’ll dance up front and show you that one move…and some days you’ll come up from behind and remind me that it’s never too late to make a positive change in my life.
Zumba, of course, isn’t for everyone. But it has been amazing for me. And not just in the get-in-shape-after-not-exercising-regularly-for-years kind of way. You can learn this kind of stuff from any exercise routine, I think. You just have to show up, day after day, week after week, month after month. And you have to be willing to make an ass of yourself. And get sweaty and stinky in front of strangers. The pounds will fall away. So will your inhibitions. The workout is great. The things you learn about yourself in the process are greater.