I Hated Zumba…Until I Didn’t

I hated my first Zumba class.

True story.

Yes, I once hated the form of group fitness I still participate in and teach every single week.  I actually went to my first class five years ago in the very same studio space where I teach every Saturday morning.

I can remember it pretty vividly: it was a Friday night and I stood on the far side of the room — not completely in the back, but near a door in case I wanted to bounce out of there.

And while it’s not verbatim, here’s a very close-to-accurate transcript of some of my thoughts from that night (profanity included — you’ve been advised):

  • “All of these people know what they’re doing and I don’t.” 
  • “The women here know each other and I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
  • “I look like shit in these pants. Flared pants DO NOT offset my top half. Sigh.” 
  • “What in the hell is this sequence? Wait, I think I’ve got it. No. I don’t.” 
  • “I don’t want to look at myself — those under eye circles. I can’t even…”
  • “Why does my hair do that? Hate it.”
  • “I don’t know what I’m doing”. 
  • “Fucking mirrors everywhere.” 
  • “I still don’t know what I’m doing.”

And I did leave the class that night. It wasn’t a pronounced exit; I slipped out the door as quietly as I could in between songs. If I could have dissolved into the hardwood floor, I would have.

Maybe you can tell from my thoughts that I wasn’t just trying to escape the class, I wanted to leave myself, too.

Lots of good things were happening in my life at that time: a new baby, advancing my career through another round graduate school and settling into a new house. I was not a woman who felt like she was in a state of turmoil or near depression. Actually, I think there are lots of women who feel like I did — in a constant state of action, proving and pushing through.

Action, proving and pushing aren’t bad things at all, but they became the lens with which I viewed myself and my life. I got lost in impossible standards for myself.

If I was going to get back to my “happy weight,” then surely I was going to have make some pretty stringent rules and follow them. Until I got frustrated with myself. And then I’d either suddenly or gradually forget those rules.

Or I might hope to drop the weight in the midst of a personal semi-crisis or stress. Or a stomach virus.

I can remember weighing myself in our basement (yes, I moved the scale to the basement because “it made me feel bad about myself”) after my family passed around a virus one winter weekend. I was taking a set of sheets my son had thrown up on to the washer and had the thought that maybe my Weight Watchers plan I’d started just a few weeks before in the New Year had been boosted by my inability to keep food down.

And I can distinctly remember the weird combination of feeling a sense of satisfaction along with “not enough-ness” when I saw the number. And shame. That feels so vulnerable to say that, but freeing, too, because shame can’t breathe when it’s exposed.

I tried to whip myself into shape physically and mentally by exercising. Interesting turn of a phrase — to “whip” oneself into shape. I look back at the woman I was at that Zumba class back in 2009 and I see that there were two intentions battling one another:

  1. I wanted to have fun — oh man, I wanted to dance and have fun. This class held that promise.
  2. I wanted to get my weight in check. I wasn’t going to say it out loud to many people because I told myself that my frame didn’t look like I should care too much about it. More shame. My 2009 self had to get this “under control.”

And, as you can see from my thoughts I listed earlier in the post, I consistently beat myself up and felt awkward and defeated. I wouldn’t let my mind make room for the fun or just letting the dancing be a way of taking care of my body instead of a way to subtract cake.

Do you feel like that sometimes?

When I teach my Zumba classes these days, I scan the room and search the eyes of the women who made time to be there. And in my mind, I offer up a small prayer for any soul in the room who could use it:

“If you feel that way, my friend, it’s okay. Don’t judge yourself for feeling awkward or even hopeless. Decide not to get attached to feeling that way. Leave a crack in the door of your mind to let the possibility of feeling excited, happy, hopeful or inspired inside.”

I bet you think I’m going to tell you I rallied, offered myself a version of that prayer five years ago and came back to class again and again until it was like breathing to me. That I flipped the switch to a mindset of possibility, anticipation, a greater sense of patience — joy — all of that stuff.

I didn’t go back to a Zumba class for two more years.

When I did, it was because I approached it with curiosity and willingness to feel a good kind of silly. And I let a belief that maybe, just maybe, I was a damn good dancer and athletic, propel me forward. That belief was filled with much more promise and curiosity than “I hope I don’t look like an idiot doing this and I’d better burn 500+ calories.”

I had to practice deciding to approach life this way. I wanted to let go of feeling like I was running against the wind of myself so much of the time. That, in my opinion, is what the much bandied-about term “self-love” means. It’s turning towards yourself again and again with loving persistence.

And you know what? I still practice how I want to feel about my life each day. I prepare my class set some weeks and fear judgment in the form of “comment cards” (lol) or messing up choreography. “And oh shit, so much of my choreography is borrowed — is that bad? Why can’t I totally make something up all by myself?” See, I have to practice hearing all of that static in my mind and decide to show up with a full and grateful heart — to know I can be vulnerable and a leader.

It’s a process and it takes as long as it takes to do the work of discovering who you are, loving her up and growing into an even more remarkable woman.

I hope my words along with my exuberance in the video clip will both show you — it is beyond worth it.

And so are you.

In the comments below, I’d love to know:

Is there an area of your life where you could shed an expectation of yourself that weighs you down — that doesn’t help you grow into contentment, freedom or whatever feels good to you?  When you let go of it, what could you make room for instead? 

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