I taught my first Zumba class ever exactly one year ago today and if you have been reading my past Zumba chronicles (here, here, here, here, and here), you know that I’ve had an absolutely amazing, astounding year and yet…
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of self-pity.
Yesterday, I was one of the Zumba instructors at Zumba on the Hill. I was walking with a fellow Zumba instructor and we started talking. She was surprised to learn that I’m 29 years old – she thought I was 18 (all of that exercise and eating organic food and trusting in God seems to have turned back the hands of time. lol).
Then she asked that dreaded question: “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” I replied.
Why don’t I have a boyfriend? I honestly don’t know anymore. There are a lot of “whys” in my life right now that cause me grief and frustration because I don’t have any answers.
My love life? Non-existent, almost hopeless. Friends and family? My relationship with my parents is not what it could be (to say the least), and my closest friends don’t live anywhere near me. My health? I could be infertile, and my doctor says I’m mildly depressed. My finances? *Shakes my head in disbelief* My finances make me want to cry on most days. Why did I ever go to law school? My career (insofar as it can be argued that I have a career because sometimes I’m not so sure) seems aimless and leaves much, much to be desired.
Thus, as is typically the case when I get into this pattern of thinking and start brooding and mulling over the mess that I have made of my life (at least, it feels as though I have made a mess), I began to feel bad about myself (“Woe is me. I have no man. Poor me. My life is so hard. Life is unfair and God is absent…”). But then I remembered my Aqua Zumba class from yesterday morning.
I got to class early, and I spoke to a lady from my class who said that after seeing me teach, she was interested in becoming an Aqua Zumba instructor herself. She’s not the first person to tell me this. I’ve barely been teaching for a year, but I now have a handful of students who I mentor who want to become Zumba instructors. I’m happy to do so because that’s what Susan Sloan and Nelly Taylor did for me when I was starting out. The fact that I have inspired them fills me with such pride and joy.
Yesterday’s Aqua Zumba class was… interesting. The pool was filled — it was my biggest class yet. Even my supervisor later remarked, “Simone, you have a following!” But everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. At one point, we needed to kill time, and so one of my students shouted, “Let’s do the body thing.”
I start each of my Zumba classes with what I have termed the “Body Image Manifesto” which we all repeat together. I started doing this before each of my classes after I saw Zumba Education Specialist Loretta Bates do something similar at the start of her class on the Zumba cruise. I was inspired, and I brought that idea (among others) home with me after the cruise.
I realize that dancing makes people feel vulnerable, and being in a bathing suit makes people feel even more vulnerable. Gyms can often feel like hostile, intimidating, scary places for those who are not used to working out. Sometimes a few class members will scoff, “I don’t have a ‘good’ body.” Often, students will come up to me before class and pre-emptively excuse themselves and apologize for how their body moves: “I just want to let you know that I’m really bad. Like… really bad” or “I’ve got two left feet.” So I make everyone repeat this manifesto so that they can start to change their thinking and appreciate all of the things that their body helps them do, no matter its current state. I want them to believe that their pain-filled body, their diseased body, their wrinkly body, their stretch-marked body, their uncoordinated body, their old body, their young body, their fat body, their thin body, their fit body, their out-of-shape body, whatever it is — is still a good body. So I ask my class to repeat after me:
Me: I have a good body.
Class: I have a good body.
Me: I love my body.
Class: I love my body.
Me: I appreciate my body.
Class: I appreciate my body.
Me: There is nothing wrong with my body.
Class: There is nothing wrong with my body.
Me: So we leave all judgement… *I point to the door*
Class: At the door!
Me: And no judgment… *I point to the floor*
Class: On the dance floor!
Me: I want you all to raise an index finger in the air, establish eye contact with someone you don’t know, make friends, wag that finger and say “Don’t judge me!”
Class: Don’t judge me!!
Me: If I take your spot in class…
Class: Don’t judge me!
Me: If I have to sit out part-way because I’m tired or I need a drink of water…
[I say this so that people – especially first-time exercisers — don’t feel guilty or ashamed or bad about not being able to keep up or needing to take a break. I give everyone permission from the get-go so that they can do whatever they need to do, and then join us again when they feel ready. No biggie.).
Class: Don’t judge me!
Me: If I splash you by accident…
[I only say this in my Aqua Zumba classes]
Class: Don’t judge me!
Me: If I have to leave early because I need to pick up my kids, or I have diarrhea…
Class: Don’t judge me! *Class usually giggles. Usually.*
Me: If I fart…
Class: Don’t judge me!
Me: …because we are all here to work out and have fun!
[I intentionally don’t mention “lose weight” because movement is about more than just weight loss. Exercise doesn’t have to be about weight loss. Exercise can simply be about feeling good about oneself and feeling good in general and that’s the message I want to drive home].
After class, I stayed back as I usually do and schmoozed and conversed with some of my students, totally taking my own sweet time, still feeling a little uneasy with how that class went. I try to learn each person’s name as well as a little about what’s going on in their lives. I want each person in my class to feel like they matter, and not like they’re just another participant. Afterwards, I finally went into the change room. There was a young woman who had been waiting for me all that time – with a card in hand.
“Last class was my first Aqua Zumba class and it was absolutely life changing!” she gushed as she handed me the card.
My face burst into one of my characteristic wide grins and I thanked her and gave her a hug. I tucked the card safely away to read later. This is what it said:
“I was one of the new girls that took your Aqua Zumba class for the first time last week. I did not know what to expect.
“Your personality and energy blew me away. But…it wasn’t until you started speaking that the lightbulb went off and all I could think was “Oh my God! This woman is AMAZING!!
“You are so much more than an instructor… you were like a motivational speaker… I had to actually fight from crying because you were THAT inspiring! You emanate so much light and positive energy.
“Your class helps us not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well.
“I’ve been battling late stage lyme disease and fibromyalgia and more for 8 years. Your class makes me feel alive, gives me hope and [makes me feel] like anything can happen.
“I love what you said about leaving the judgements at the door!
“You are changing lives for the better.
“You are like the holy grail of Movati! I feel on top of the world taking your class and I just wanted to say thank you just for being you.
“I know if you inspired me that much in one day…you have got to be inspiring dozens of women.
“Thank you for shining so much light into my world.
“I hope you have a beautiful, amazing and inspiring day.”
I called my sister and read the card to her. My sister said, “If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. Even Stevie Wonder can see that this is a sign. You’re like the female, Black Richard Simmons!”
A couple of weeks prior, I had received another card from another student. The front of the card said, “Awesome, Amazing, Admired, Appreciated.” Inside, the words printed said, “You’re at the top of my ‘A’ list. Thanks for everything.” My class was the first group exercise class she had ever tried, and she stuck with it. I cried (yes, I actually cried in public. On. The. Bus.) when I read what she had written:
My first ever exercise class has come to an end, but I am very thankful to you for making it such a positive experience. I never dreamed I could ever enjoy exercise. I felt like I was dancing for an hour, not exercising. You made the class fun (and always appeared to be having a lot of fun yourself), and non-judgemental (I was free to move as I pleased as I followed you the best I could), and good for the self-esteem (I felt blessed to have a body healthy enough to take part in Zumba and healthy enough that I do not have the under-fed look).
You are a wonderful Zumba instructor and I will never forget this class.
Please let me know if I may join another class of yours other than the Y’s Aqua Zumba. (I go to Bible Study [at that time]. My e-mail is [she listed her e-mail and her phone number].
Thanks so much for the wonderful Zumba classes!”
Some may wonder why I talk and write about Zumba ad infinitum and ad nauseam. I try not to, but I do because often times I feel like the only thing I have going for me in my life right now is Zumba. Ironically, I think many of the people in my classes would say something similar in regards to their own lives. In fact, I’ve had one student write on a comment card, “The only thing that got me out of bed today was Simone’s Aqua Zumba class. She is good!” What they don’t know is that while I love that I get a chance to positively affect their lives each week, and while I find it very rewarding to be the bright spot in an otherwise dark day or hard life, I also teach Zumba for myself. At this point in my life, I need Zumba.
I needed something to love other than love. I needed to do something. I needed something to do with myself. I needed something to help me keep going, to erase boredom, to take my mind off of the abysmal state of my life.
The thing with depression is that it is not (just) sadness. It’s listlessness. It’s hopelessness. It’s despair. It’s a lack of energy. It’s illogical. Life loses its colour. You are not the vivacious, energetic person you typically are. It’s a pervasive, ever-present sinking feeling, a sense of constantly being pulled under, and I was on a desperate search for a buoy.
Zumba, surprisingly (but thankfully) became my answer.
Ironically, I didn’t find my buoy by being with a boy. My buoy was Zumba. Zumba kept me – keeps me – afloat while navigating the dark waters of depression.
In fact, according to my psychologist, part of the reason why I am not severely depressed or going through a major depressive episode is because of the activities in which I engage on a regular basis that have helped me build resilience, such as Zumba.
I didn’t realize it then, but timidly peering into the windows of the dance studio and walking into my first Zumba class when I was living in Montreal ended up changing and helping me survive my life.
Zumba carried me through the sheer and utter boredom of law school and the cold, long and lonely Montreal winters. It helped me sleep when I was suffering from insomnia. It took my mind off of the other stressful things that were happening at that time.
And as I faced disappointment after disappointment in my career and my health, it gave me something to look forward to.
Zumba is everything to me right now. Whenever my heart is broken, whenever I find myself wallowing in despair, I teach Zumba and suddenly a sliver of sunlight peaks through the clouds.
Zumba is the only thing that takes my mind off of my troubles and worries. When it comes to one’s love life, people often say, “Don’t think about it – it’ll happen. It’ll happen when you least expect it.” Only thing is, for singles, once you get to a certain age, you’re almost always expecting it, and you’re rarely never not thinking about it. (Worse if you’ve prayed. Prayer heightens expectation). In my Zumba class, however, I’m too busy shimmying and shaking my tush to worry about my marital status. For that one hour, it doesn’t matter if I’m single or married, infertile or broke. Zumba gives me a mental reprieve. It truly is the only time during the day when the “hopelessness” of my life does not cross my mind.
And I feel so much better after class. Like a weight has been lifted. Like I can face my life. Like I can do life as long as I continually have the respite that Zumba offers.
That’s the difference an hour can make.
That one hour in Zumba helps me get through the other twenty-three.
My story is not an anomaly. My story is the story of other Zumba instructors and really anyone who has ever taken a Zumba class.
My story is my students’ stories.
I remember running into Shopper’s Drug Mart to get something and running into one of my students. She let me know that she probably wouldn’t be able to attend my Zumba class that week because her father was dying.
I gave her a hug, and then she started crying, and then I started crying, and then she told me her marriage was ending and she was unemployed, and my heart just broke for her, and I gave her another hug, and here we both were, hugging and sobbing in the middle of the aisle at Shopper’s Drug Mart.
“But that’s why I love your class,” she said, eyes puffy and welling with more tears. “It helps take my mind off of everything. When I went back home to visit my dad, I was teaching my family the new moves I learned in your class!”
Her story is one of many that I’ve heard. I have the great privilege of hearing my students” stories. My students confide in me. We share stories, advice (I got some good sex advice from the seniors in my class the other day), laughs, tears and meals.
I know that one thing that most people are looking for (and what I was looking for when I moved to Ottawa) is community, and so I intentionally try to make people in my class feel like they are part of a family. We learn names. I plan routine get-togethers. I’ve made a lot of friends. And Zumba has introduced me to the most interesting people – from fellow public servants to a former national championship swimmer.
They tell me about their divorces, their pregnancies, and their back pain, and we try to work on all of it together.
Zumba, in a very unconventional way, is ministry, and Zumba classes – or at least my Zumba class – is a congregation for the hurting. I consider myself a dispenser of joy. We hurt, so we dance. And then we feel better.
The teaching of Zumba has taught me that we’re all just trying to get through life and cope with our lemons. Some people turn to drugs, food, alcohol, and/or sex. Some use laughter and comedy to get through. Some party. Some do sports. Some sing. Some make music. Some do a bit of everything. Some, like me, write. For the rest of us, there’s Zumba.
They say that when you are tempted to feel sorry for yourself, you should go find someone who needs help and help them, and do something that takes your mind off of you and instead focuses your attention on the needs of others.
I think I’ve found it.
The reggae singer (my fav reggae singer, btw) Beres Hammond has a song titled, “What One Dance Can Do.” He sings, “I’d like to tell you a story about what one dance can do.” Contrary to Beres, however, this is my story:
“You give off so much positive energy!”
“You have a gift Simone. You really do. I can’t tell you enough what your class does for me!”
“More Body Positive Classes by Simone S. would be appreciated. I thoroughly enjoy her Sunday Aqua Zumba class. It is the only class I try to make each week.”
“I had such a terrible shift today and I got no sleep last night but I needed to be here. My body needed this.”
“Love her Aqua Zumba class. Need more of her!”
“Thanks for a fun and energetic Aqua Zumba class!”
“Zumba Sunday 11 am. Lots of fun. A little bit of Motown!”
“Simone should win an award for Most Outstanding Instructor! Her Aqua Zumba class is so much fun. She brings a lot of positive energy that is unlike any of the other classes.”
“I didn’t like you before, but now I like you. And I love your class.”
“Your class is life-changing.”
My class is life-changing for others, and because it is life-changing for others, my class is also life-changing for me.
That is what one dance can do.