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LIFE, UNEDITED: Dance Dance Revolution

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How Zumba gets me back on my feet.

About a half mile from my house, around 60 women gather for Zumba at a local community center every Saturday morning. The crowd includes adolescent girls and women of advanced age. Attire ranges from scantily clad to full cover, with head scarves. Our skin tones reflect nearly every shade, from deep chocolate brown to pinky-white. We all seriously love to dance.

For me to skip this little extravaganza of joy usually requires extreme illness — or extreme anxiety about the state of the world. Last week it was the latter that pushed me to take a free self-defense class on offer during the same hour, the dubious results of which included some bruises that still smart as I type this. So this Saturday I headed back to where I feel most at home, and where I know I’m going to feel better when I leave.

I like to dance near the front of the gym, where the music is loudest, but behind someone who has better moves, so I can cop them. Last Saturday I positioned myself behind a beaming woman wearing a copper-colored head-wrap and bright red lipstick, whose arms and hips move like water. The first salsa blared from the speakers and we were off, the whole group rocking out in our individual ways while moving back and forth through the gym in perfect synchrony, like a school of fish.

After about four songs, I felt my heart start to loosen a little from its post-election clench. We were still here; my dancing buddies had not disappeared. I looked around and silently thanked each of these women (and the couple brave men who join us) for keeping me afloat during so many moments when I was close to sinking. And then I saw one of us slip off to the side and sit down on the floor, her face in her hands. She was tough looking, covered in tattoos, wearing barefoot shoes on stout legs. A stalwart regular. And she was weeping.

My dancing mentor in the copper head-wrap leaned down to her. They exchanged a few words I couldn’t hear over the music, their two expressions — bright compassionate hope beside dark despair — somehow fit perfectly together. Then another dancer came and sat down beside her, both of them facing out into the room. This woman’s expression was easy and open, as in, “Hey, I get it. I’ll just hang out next to you for a little while.”

Those of us nearby kept dancing, with a concerned eye in our classmate’s direction. It was hard not to go down with her. After another half song she packed up her things and left, her silent companion giving her a friendly pat on the shoulder. I took a deep stuttering breath and felt myself start to slip out too, at least emotionally, but then I noticed the T-shirt of the woman in front of me. It read directly: “Don’t Give Up.”

So I didn’t. Not because I’m so tough, but in case she was wearing it for her own benefit as well as everyone else’s, I couldn’t leave her to dance by herself. I stayed put and followed the rock steady moves of the women before me, all the while thinking of Emma Goldman, one of my childhood heroes, and her famous statement: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

And, perhaps somewhat less gloriously, one of my favorite Beck lyrics: “Bust a move with what you can.”

I suspect I’m not the only person who’d have preferred different timing for this historical moment. To leave this tumult to a different generation, with better minds and stouter hearts than mine. I’d rather just dance on Saturday mornings and read books with my cats in my lap.

But here we are. And more is required.

Being surrounded by dancing women steadies me in the face of this fact. While my classmate had to quit, she had still shown up that morning, ready to fight for her joy. I’ll bet money that I see her there again next week. The music will wait for her, just like it waits for all of us. Reminding us that now is a good time to stand up for what is joyful and loving and life-giving — and to support each other while we do.

Courtney Helgoe is an Experience Life senior editor.

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