It happened the moment I saw her—somebody’s petite grandmamà, her hair precision-curled into ringlets and her tank top neatly pressed, shaking her booty without inhibition or anything close to synchronization with the sweaty salsa tune thumping over the speakers. I watched her through the studio window for no more than two seconds before the joy of her giddy soul-groove accomplished what months of considering and researching and YouTube tutorial browsing had been unable to give me: a transfusion of fearlessness.
At the start of the very next Zumba class, I was there, on the other side of the glass this time, shaking in my Reeboks and wondering how many seconds I had left with my dignity before it fled the premises in shame.
See, this white girl can’t dance. I took classical ballet for seven years, during which I heard constant variations on “You’re too uptight!” That’s right. Too uptight for ballet, which is pretty much like being too smart for Mensa or too brave for Red Bull space-jumping. My brief encounter with a hip-hop choreographer made her cry. I have rhythm, sure, but it’s the kind that leads to careers in metronome programming and dictatorship, not to truth-telling Shakira hips.
It goes deeper than that too. My shocking inability to get a groove on has every last one of its roots coiled around a philosophy of body image that I would like to call The Shamemonger.
You’re not going to hear the word “shame” directly from The Shamemonger’s lips unless she’s reading from the King James Bible. No, you’re much more likely to hear the terms “modesty” and “purity” and “stumbling block” and “inciting lust,” each one spoken with a pulpit-wagging finger. You will never hear her directly instruct you to hate your body, but she will urge you with every persuasive tool in her arsenal to hide it and repress it and blame it. The Shamemonger markets to females alone, teaching us from as early an age as possible that our bodies are corruptors. If our shapes or our movements or the very skin on our bones attract notice, we have instigated sexual sin, and the responsibility for that sin rests on our souls.
The result is that young girls under The Shamemonger’s tutelage grow up, as I did, with all of that weight pushing back against our natural development. We hunch over to smudge our silhouettes. We mechanize our walking patterns and restrict the confident flair out of our movements. We view all men as weak-minded and predatory and sexuality as a dangerous, shameful thing to possess. We hate our bodies like we hate nothing else on God’s green earth and then wonder why marital intimacy is such a struggle.
God have mercy. Like Brené Brown pointed out in her TED Talk last year, guilt is understanding that you have made a mistake while shame is believing that you are a mistake, and the philosophy I grew up with falls squarely into the latter category. The idea that my body is inherently bad leaves no room for resolution or redemption; the only possible outcome is self-loathing… Unless, of course, I decide that The Shamemonger has it all wrong—that her lens of fear and insecurity have warped the truth of our bodies’ precious value into something unrecognizable and grotesque and wrong as wrong can be—and decide to start pushing back.
The music starts, and it’s like thunder. It’s like sassy, syncopated thunder, and gravity jumps out of its way as it rolls through the room. The instructor is already Merengue-marching, and my feet join in even though I don’t know the first thing about Merengue, even though I won’t know it’s called Merengue until I look up the moves at home. It can’t be helped; the rhythm has me now.
The dance studio is packed to the gills, its walls expanding with each collective breath just to contain our energy. At least a hundred pairs of hips are scooping figure-eights out of the air, and we’re so far beyond personal space restraints, so thoroughly inside each other’s orbits that I’m able to catch the stocky middle-aged mom next to me singing under her breath, “I’m sexy an’ I know it.” This makes me happy in a way that can only be expressed through a gratuitous shimmy.
Every single shape, size, color, and age group is represented in the room, from the 70-year-old gentleman wobbling to the beat to the group of third-graders in karate uniforms bouncing along on the other side of the glass, and everyone is grinning and sweating and cheering and grooving, and it’s a little bit of heaven right here in the gym. Propriety? Well, it went packing when gravity did, but dignity is in its element here.
And that’s the thing—there is no shame in this room, no time for self-consciousness, no room for criticism. We are dancing in unabashed celebration of these strong and strange and uniquely wonderful bodies we were born with, and is dignity anything less than this very recognition of our worth?
I know what The Shamemonger would say about Zumba—if she were able to articulate much of anything through compulsive gasps of horror, that is—but I don’t care to challenge her on it. She’s held my focus for too many years as it is. True, her lens of fear and insecurity isn’t going to dissolve from my vision overnight any more than I’m going to become the newest salsa superstar, but these twice-weekly forays into sweat and joy and fearlessness are pushing back more powerfully than any other argument I could make.
(My five-year-old, author and perfecter of the gratuitous shimmy.)