Photo by Michael S. Wright
Tonight my Zumba sanctuary opened me up to all kinds of interesting vulnerability, in ways I did not like or expect. But let me start from the beginning. As some of you know, I love Zumba. It has become a part of my practice. I am far less irritable since going to Zumba classes regularly. It was these classes that brought me back to the gym, as soon as my body could safely face it, after top surgery. There are very few things that can come between me and Zumba on a Thursday night or a Saturday morning. Ok, you get the picture, now let me share the unexpected turn of events.
I was so excited to make it to the 7.30 class, despite the busy day of work, looking after a sick daughter, a pounding headache, and getting ready to travel soon. I smiled at my Zumba buddies, took my space, made peace with the fact that it was a new substitute teacher tonight, and then realized that a large group of what I assumed to be straight white men in their 20s and 30s, accompanied by a couple of women, had entered the studio. They were joining the class for tonight. I noticed my body tighten, and acknowledged the flight response. Nothing was going to spoil my refuge. I tried to tell myself that I was making assumptions, that I did not know who these people where, or whether they were a 'problem' in any way. The music started, and I focused on the steps, as a new teacher is always a bit of a challenge to established habits.
Wherever you go, there you are, as Jon Kabat-Zinn would say. And there I was, challenging not just my body to trace new steps to familiar tunes, but also my heart to stay open when it wanted to shut down. I wish I could say that the men shattered my assumptions by joining in the fun. They didn't. Whatever their pain, they chose to manifest it by taking up space rudely, somewhat loudly, and generally fitting into my experience of 'large group of straight, white dudes'. Yes, I wish I was enlightened enough not to have such lump categories. I am not, and I do. They lived up to my stereotype, and I kept breathing, dancing, trying to ignore their behavior, without shutting down to them, or myself. There I went, and there I was, so I decided that I might as well watch what was going on.
I checked in with a couple of regulars after the class, on the way out. I wanted to know whether I was being over-sensitive. They thought the behavior was not the best, but that they were "just being a bunch of guys", and that "they are not likely to come back". On the way home, I realized I felt shaky still. Parts of it were body memories, parts were about familiar rage at the carelessness of many men in taking up space in a way that violates other people's. I don't do well when spaces that I perceived as somewhat safer are disrupted. I don't like it when women, and usually straight women, dismiss men's behavior with a what-can-you-expect-of-them attitude. I get both angry and sad that this is a world in which there are such low expectations of most men, that they are not asked to step up, most of the time. I get mad that sometimes those low expectations might mask fear, and a perceived lack of agency in the face of what seems to be part of the 'normal' order of things. Boys will be boys, and women will justify them more often than not.
Most of all, I notice how much emotion the silly situation tonight gave rise to, how fragile I felt despite the fact that nothing actually happened. Nobody threatened, or mocked me to my face. Yet, there I was, carrying all the stories, the years, the encounters, the frustration, the fear. What was different was that there I was. Not somewhere else, not shut down, not frozen. I learnt the new steps, smiled at the teacher, breathed and smiled at myself. I shared space with people I usually choose to keep out of my life, by avoiding places they might frequent. There I actually was. If they come back, I might even try to have a conversation with them about what they think of Zumba. After all, we share a planet, surely I can share my sanctuary more generously, and gracefully, than I was able to for tonight.