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Phobic to Philic

January 10, 2011

Before I was exerphilic, I was exerphobic.

Until my mid-twenties I felt shyer, slower, bigger, and klutzier than anyone else. What is clear in retrospect is that this had nothing to do with my body, and everything to do with my brain.

I still feel looming anxiety during excellently sunny spring days: perfect frisbee-throwing weather. Deep in some scarred and scaredy lobe of brain, I wonder, “Am I expected to go outside? Am I expected to have fun? Don’t. Wanna.”

Why would I feel this way? I do wanna, actually.

I have a wince-worthy memory of doing a 100 yard dash in the playyard of my grammar school. I was about 10. Running probably wasn’t the problem; rather, I suspect it was the social anxiety of people watching me run that tied my feet into a knot. I fell and tore the knee of my pants open. And then, instead of assigning me some sort of fake score, or suggesting that I do it privately after school, or staging a political overthrow (it was for the Presidential physical fitness test), the teacher made me do it again.

That day, I went home in pants with 2 shredded knees, and self-esteem in similar condition.

My anxiety fed upon itself. For most of my life, I could not have told that fitness-test, falling-twice story because it seemed far too sad and close to the bone. On the one hand, it’s just a story about skinning your knee, which absolutely everyone does when they are a kid. But on the other, it seemed to signify so much that I should be ashamed of.

So, just in case, I’d do anything to avoid physical activity. Consequently, when I got to middle school, I could barely jog around the track. The track is only a quarter of a mile. When I was done, I was one of the last, and came into the locker room winded and splotchy and expected to undress and get to my next class in four minutes. Again: my dislike of the physical world fed upon itself.

I was never a kid who got a note—or who wrote myself a fake note, thank you very much—proclaiming that natural human female adolescent situations precluded me from participating. No: I showed up for gym, got dressed in the stupid uniform, acted respectful of the teacher, participated in the hellish activity, and then got chastised and “progress reports” about my poor performance.

That’s how to get shy kids to like gym. Don’t try to find something they might be good at, or interested in. No: mock them! Tell them that they are failing! Make them write papers.

(Heh. You want me to write a paper? Fine. I will stun you with my flexible vocabulary. I will dominate you with my muscular transitions. I will leave you in the dust with my ace pacing. Be careful, though, for carrying all that paper around will probably make you immolate extra fast once you are in hell.)

Swimming, I enjoyed. I had always taken swim lessons and I was a perfectly confident and strong swimmer. My sister, who also did stuff like color guard and who managed the hockey team, had been on the swim team in high school. Once I was in high school, I signed up for swim team because my best friend was doing it, too. I was predictably slow, like a person who has refused to participate in the physical world for 15 whole years would be. But hey, I got every lap I was ever assigned done, and I know that I improved. Being a participant in relays would have been alright, or at least alright with me.

What’s upsetting is what the coach would say to me. She reinforced whatever self-loathing and grim thoughts I had about myself in some sort of armyistic speech that was meant to, what, make me feel worse about myself and her feel better about herself? Break me down to build me up? Oh, please. I wasn’t smoking or having a bad attitude, and I was showing up to practice at 5:59 in the morning, and that is not a typo, so who in the name of Vishnu was she to complain about my attempts? I don’t like to blame other people for my shortcomings, except, except no. I would actually like to blame some terrible gym teachers. I may have had a low PQ, but it was soaring as compared with her, and her, and her, EQ.

When I was 25, my new friend from work, April, suggested I join her at her exercise class. My first instinct was to pretend that I didn’t speak English. We were editors, so she quickly called my bluff. Um, hiding? I made excuses about my busy, busy schedule. The problem was that April was always going to this class, and I was always invited.

[Deep sigh.]

I knew that I needed to get over my fear of gyms and working out. In a radical break in character, I mentally appointed April as a person I could do anything in front of. If I turned red and fell down in a pile with complete exhaustion, so be it. If I tripped on my leg and broke it, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d broken my leg for a completely weird reason, and hey, at least this time, I wouldn’t be by myself. Doing it with April would be like doing it alone, I decided.

So I went to her class. Her class was called JAZZERCISE.

Do you know about Jazzercise? Are you laughing at me? Do you think I am a dork? Yeah, well, I am a dork, a Jazzercise-loving dork, and don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. You should be so lucky to be this much of a dork, who broke through the wall of anxiety.

So, let me tell you both about Jazzercise, and also, why Jazzercise has become relevant in my life once again.

During Jazzercise, there is a lot of un-ironic marching in place to Top 40 music. There are a lot of housewives. There is a lot of spandex, there are a lot of jazzhands, and you will do a lot of the grapevine.

And since Jazzercise was held at Central Texas community center where I was not the youngest, or the oldest, or the fattest, or the thinnest, or the richest, or the poorest, I was able to achieve a sort of back-row anonymity that made me calm enough to do it once, then twice, then a million times.

The moves are stuff that other people may have done when they were 8, at tap or Dance & Drama, but there was no way you could tear me away from Harriet the Spy when I was 8 for something as scary as dancing. And hey, maybe it’s a godsend, because when I experienced it in my 20s, I was so hungry for it that it was like the biggest, coldest, bubbliest Coca Cola on the hottest-ever day. It burned my throat with its complete excellence. I was quickly addicted.

As it happens, I love to twist my hips to Ricky Martin songs with lots of middle-aged ladies. If there is an opportunity to pretend that I have a rose between my teeth, I will take this opportunity, and then ask you for another.

So, in an abject plot twist, I learned that I love to exercise. I even sort of love to run, so long as I have a dedicated partner who can tell me funny stories for the whole entire run, and then we can eat dinner after. And I love to try new exercises, especially those where I can be solidly in the middle.

Sadly, New York is too cool for Jazzercise, so I gave that up 11 years ago. But now we do have Zumba, which is an exercise class which is choreographed dancing to Latin music. It affords many of the same opportunities to be with people who have already have kids, and who secretly like to wear spandex, and who are dying to get out of the house and dance around whilst trying to be fitter.

By the time I tried Zumba for the first time on Saturday, I’d taken tiny doses of foxtrot, Western Swing, bellydancing, and salsa-dancing classes. Once, I took a Bhangra lesson. Am I good at any of these things? Absolutely not. I’ve also taken yoga, pilates, and gyrotonics. One day in my life, I ran a 10k. I wasn’t the Pride of Lowell, but I did cross the finish line.

I was really nervous when I arrived at the Zumba class. IS THE CLASS ALREADY IN SESSION? DO I WEAR SHOES? DO I WEAR SOCKS? WHAT DO I WEAR? AGH!!!!

It was in a dance studio with a mirror. It had a lithe Peruvian instructor with a lots of long lean muscle and a washcloth on his head. I jumped right in. Twist those hips, shake those shoulders, claps those hands.

Open teeth, insert rose.

Most importantly, laugh.

When I finished an hour later, I had a flushed face and a blood blister on the big toe of my right foot and scarily filthy feet. I was elated. I said to the teacher, sincerely, “thanks, that was a lot of fun.” And he said to me, “Oh, I’m glad. You’re very good, you know.”

I believed him. Can you believe it?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Alana permalink
    January 10, 2011 9:24 pm

    I love this story! Bringing me back to the days of gym class… I don’t wish that on anyone. I loved when it rained and we had to stay indoors and play badminton or pretend to learn how to juggle.

  2. Catherine N. permalink
    January 11, 2011 7:15 am

    I had an awful teacher as a child who gave me an A for effort and an E for improvement. An E?! Really?

  3. Karen permalink
    January 11, 2011 4:14 pm

    Ditto, loved this. Wish there was a zumba class that worked for my schedule! Care to share where you took it?

  4. January 12, 2011 1:05 pm

    I think we were elementary school P.E. kindred spirits. I hated it. And still do. Maybe they do jazzercise in the suburbs somewhere?

  5. April 29, 2011 1:33 pm

    OMG. I am so glad I talked to you and you told me that you blogged this! Many is the time I have wished for you to join me in my special spot near the back of my Zumba class, where I amuse all the (other, for now I am one, too!) middle aged ladies by twirling the wrong way and belting out all the words to all the Lady Gaga songs at the top of my lungs. Also, I believe that all those grapevines and hip twists we did in Jazzercise created brain circuits and muscle memory so that we ARE good at Zumba. Really really good! Like, the best! Zumba Aay! Zumba AAH!

    • Amy Daniewicz permalink
      November 16, 2012 10:59 pm

      Ah! I love this story and I love that I knew both of you at the time of the Jazzercize! Meredith, you are such a good writer, when are the publishing gods coming out with a book of yours already???

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