Yesterday I danced for more than an hour with 387 other people to high energy club music … via Zoom. It’s the virtual version of a dance party I went to in New York City called The Get Down, back in the olden days (a few weeks ago … before all this). What I loved about the party IRL was that it started at 7 p.m. every second Thursday. My partner and I could dance to exhaustion for 90 minutes to a driving beat, with a disco ball and people decked out in glitter (or not), go out for dinner and still be home at a reasonable hour on a weeknight.
Obviously, dancing with a couple hundred other people in a sweat-slicked environment is no longer feasible. So, Tasha Blank, the spiritually-curious DJ extraordinaire who founded The Get Down, took the party online last week. My partner and I were uncertain, but we signed up for the inaugural session and enjoyed it enough to sign up again this week.
There’s no doubt, it’s a trickier business creating a virtual dance party environment. The shared energy infusion is harder to access. You can get an idea from the computer screen above of what the “environment” looks like. Yesterday there were 16 similar pages to scroll through, to take a peek at everyone else.
Tasha opens and closes with a grounding meditation, which helps to align us across space and time. Then there’s the great music. And, for me, seeing everyone in their own environment—pets, kids, parents, bedrooms, kitchens, funky lighting, outdoors, dressed up, dressed down, possibly undressed (those who don’t turn their cameras on??) fuels an energetic intimacy that propels my dancing. As does my sequined headband.
Mina dancing in her living room in the afternoon sunlight
I’ve had to make the mental adjustment to daylight dancing. A friend asked if we shut off the lights to dance. Well, no. The lights aren’t on yet. Because we’re “sheltered” out in Truckee, California at the moment. The afternoon sun is streaming in the windows. We don’t have blinds. Today the UPS guy showed up while we were dancing. Fortunately, he doesn’t even knock now, because he doesn’t want to see us in person. I left the package outside until we’d finished dancing, on the unfounded theory that COVID19 doesn’t like below freezing weather.
I love dancing pretty much anytime. The release. The freedom. The joy.
We’re not talking about joy much these days. At the same time, if we can find joy in the midst, what a gift. I’m enormously grateful for the chance to dance with my partner, slough off some anxiety and reconnect with the music in my body.
Dance with me! And let me know, if or how you’re finding slivers of joy.
I’m seriously hoping my post motivates athletic wear companies to start making formal wear.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, why can’t we dance the night away at weddings & other formal gatherings without drowning in our sweat? Whether you prefer a snappy suit or a darling dress no one feels great in their getup after even a short stint of enthusiastic dancing.
This year, for the first time in a long time, I had 3 formal occasions in the span of a month and I needed something to wear.
I shopped in dress stores in Canada and the USA to no avail. I wear plus size clothes. I’ve worn pants or skirts or dresses before. My default look is quirky femme who dresses for comfort. Nothing that fit inspired me despite my willingness to put down serious cash on a gown.
I shared my trials and tribulations on social media for comedic effect but also for advice.
There are these formal, uh, onesies? Jumpers? They look cute but to use the toilet you either need to drop the whole thing on the floor or buy one with access snaps.
I couldn’t imagine being in a toilet fumbling with my neither regions so that was not an option for me.
As the first event drew nearer I started to panic. I was certain I wouldn’t be able to find anything that fit, was comfortable, and that I liked.
I happened into Ricki’s, a shop I’d never tried on my sister’s advice to consider a combination of separates instead of a dress.
First winning moment, everything in the store went up to plus sizes. I could actually try on every style in the store. Amazing!
Second there was a sale. Yippee!
Third, there was stuff I liked that was comfortable! Wahoooooooooo!
I ended up buying a super fun glitter stretch knit dress with a cowl back.
I wore that dress to my work formal. No shape wear, just a regular bra and undies. The stretchy fabric meant I was super comfy sitting, eating and dancing. The only downside was it didn’t breathe very well so after a few songs I’d be soaked from dancing. Granted I’m an enthusiastic dancer. I also sweat quite a bit. Honestly though if Under Armor or some other athletic wear company would make high performance formal wear I know a large group of suit and dress wearing humans who would by them!!!
We have money!!
I also scored a really shimmery sequined top and then a mirror calf length cardigan.
I wore pleather leggings with a lace top and the mirrored cardigan to my friends’ wedding. Again, comfy, classy and appropriately attention seeking. Let’s be honest, after the trials and tribulations of finding fun, functional formal wear it’s good to get noticed!
Coming up next is my partner’s work formal. I have at least 3 options that look great, feel good and I can dance in. I’ll get super sweaty but that’s ok.
Have you found formal wear that breathes when you dance? Please tell me about it!
Last weekend, while we weren’t riding short distances or getting coffee, my friend Norah and I saw the Martha Graham Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow, a dance center in western Massachusetts. The Martha Graham Dance company is the oldest modern dance company in the US, founded in 1926. You can read more about the company here on their website or visit here for an online exhibit of images, text and video about Graham herself (who died in 1991).
I love modern dance. I admit I don’t always get the themes or narrative threads of some of the works, but I’m always struck by the beauty and power of the bodies in motion and stillness. And in the case of the Martha Graham dances, it’s the women– often in groups– that move in ways that are athletic and rigorous, but also evoke teamwork and community. Take a look.
In all these images, we see women in groups, either captured in motion or stillness, all doing the same shapes. These shapes are simple and geometric. But they are are very demanding on the body. In one part of Graham’s famous Appalachian Spring, a group of four dancers stood with their backs to the stage, their arms rounded over their heads, with hands overlapping. They stood there for what seemed like forever, not moving. Committing to being in your body, with others, for a shared purpose, in ways that work that body– that is impressive and inspiring to me. That’s what these women do.
Learning the Martha Graham technique is a special subgenre of modern dance. You can see a video of how deceptively simple the movements are, and how strong and powerful a foundation they create for making art through movement.
I really liked this video, as it shows how everything comes back to regular practice. It’s true in writing, it’s true in sports, and it’s true in art.
Below are two black and white images of dancers in technique class. The second one includes Martha Graham herself teaching class. The third one is a class preparing students for knee work.
The last photo is my favorite. You can see all the dancers in their individual bodies– different shapes and lengths of limbs, all united by their shared commitment to a group creation. And they do this every day.
There’s a lot behind and about the work of Martha Graham. My friend Debra Cash, a dance critic and historian, gave a talk before the performance we saw, and offered us some of those interpretations and themes that enrich our experience of watching modern dance. However, she agrees that much of their power comes from their embodied selves, working together over years, and bringing that to us on stage.
Women working together in groups, over time. Laboring. Moving. Waiting. Helping. Entering and leaving. Over and over and over and over again. In life. In physical activity. In art. In pain. In beauty.
Functional fitness (aka functional movement) is a thing now. That’s exercises that train our muscles for regular life activities, like squatting to pick up something we’ve dropped, or reaching for something on a high shelf (or even climbing onto the kitchen counter to reach something, as I did a few days ago). But, do our regular life activities support our workouts? Can movement with a function substitute for a workout?
I asked myself this question a couple of weeks ago, when a cord of wood was dumped in our driveway at 8 a.m. Just looking at it was pretty daunting. Even though I knew from previous years the stacking wouldn’t take more than an hour (for two of us), all those logs in a giant, jumbled mound sitting in a bed of dust and bits of scattered bark said, “Cancel anything else you planned for the day. I’m the boss of you today.”
Sorry to break it to you, bossy logs, my day was actually a lot fuller. It went like this. Meditation for 30 minutes. Trip to the farmer’s market to stock up on spectacular veggies and fruit. Breakfast with my partner at the local coffee shop on our way home. (Tried a new wildberry paleo muffin with honey and finishing salt. Not bad. Plus the hard boiled eggs I’d brought with me to supplement the baked goods.) Stacked all the wood in the garage. Filled one plastic tub and the ash can with bark and wood remnants to use as kindling. Swept the garage floor, finishing touches with the shop vac. Swept and hosed the driveway. Cleaned the house. Removed, washed and wrestled every slip cover back on to couches, benches, chairs and stools. Caught up on email. Had a work call. Went for a tempo run in the mountains. Collapsed on the couch and watched German television (Dark-– a great mind game of a show).
Technically, I did “only” a 50-minute workout. Even though I pushed on my run, it was a lighter day in the arc of my current training. Except … I also stacked wood for another hour, which is physically demanding. And I cleaned, a lighter physical demand than the other two, but very taxing (plus, dishpan hands—can anyone recommend a truly effective hand cream?).
How should I count my workout for the day? 50 minutes. Some percentage of wood stacking and cleaning, plus 50 minutes? Why does it matter?
Three reasons: First, because if I don’t account for all that activity, then I wonder why I’m so tired during my workout the next day. Second, because actual movement makes you stronger. Why not give myself some credit, instead of partaking of the female tendency to downplay accomplishments?! And third, instead of doing a series of functional movement exercises, I engaged in the actual movement that the exercises prepare us for. And by the way, no functional fitness exercise is going to fully prepare me for the incredibly awkward and disparate shapes and sizes of logs, with all their sharp, pokey bits, plus the arm and chest abrasions, not to mention the wood dust in the eyes.
How incredibly satisfying to finish the task.
I gave myself another 50 mins of workout credit for the day. Added it to the tally in the back of my mind. Felt good about my strength. Decided I’d done some next level functional fitness.
Biking around New York City is another place this actual movement vs workout question comes up. Some days I might bike from place to place for an hour or more. Though I’m not pushing, as I would in a workout, the activity is not nothing. I’ve developed a personal algorithm for Citibike. I count 30% of the time toward my total workout time on that day. A bonus. My movement serves a function.
Functional movement is an excellent concept. Or as this article in Women’s Health puts it, “your butt isn’t there just to look pretty.” Our health is a resource, not simply an end goal in itself. We want to be healthy so we can participate in and contribute to the world (and get the chores done). Also, to have fun, as Catherine pointed out in her piece about functional movement and parkour.
So, how can we think about actual movement’s contributions to our workouts?
Like this: Our daily activity strengthens and prepares us to be better athletes.
Here’s one life activity that prepares us for everything (and that a lot of us here at Fit Is A Feminist Issue like to do): Dancing. I love it. Not for a workout, not choreographed, just turning up the volume, drowning in music and dancing my not-just-pretty butt off. A woman described to me recently being bored on a treadmill, loving the music she was listening to and wanting to get off the exercise machine and dance. She asked, “What should I do?” She was worried that dancing wouldn’t count as a workout. I said, “Dance.” Dance is uncategorizable. A daily activity. A workout. A practice of freeing the mind and body. Others here have written buoyant posts about dance. Catherine’s a dancing queen, Christine is dancing for 100 Days and Sam’s looking for more no-regrets opportunities to dance like a sexy Muppet.
Dance is the ultimate functional movement, preparing us for joy. And if you’re dancing for no functional or workout reason, my personal algorithm says—give yourself time and a half bonus credit (150%) in your workout log!
This morning, on Facebook, one friend said that the most disturbing aspect of growing older is the closing down of possibilities conjoined with the pressure of time. Ouch. But they’re right.
And the other posted this.
Cheerful, but I think wrong. Sometimes you are too old and it is too late.
I guess I’m trying to be realistic when I say that there are things for which it’s definitely too late, I’ve blogged before about my commitment to stop saying, it’s never too late. I won’t give birth to more children, for example. I’m not sad about that but it’s obviously true
I’m thinking about limits and aging this week as yet another friend is being forced to give up soccer and running because of knee problems. It’s so hard. I still miss soccer and running and Aikido.
So all of this got me thinking what can I do now that I might not be able to do later? What opportunities should I seize because possible now and might not be later?
I’ve written about my regret that I didn’t play team sports until late in life. As it turns out by the time I started there weren’t many years left. See my older post on team sports and childhood regrets. What else might be like that? What should I start now?
Regret is one thing we might think about when making decisions. Yes, we want to maximize our future happiness. We might also think about minimizing future regret.
What all I regret if I don’t do it now?
I started thinking about this as two other bloggers here posted about dancing. Christine is doing a 100 days dancing challenge. Catherine recalls her dancing days and her ongoing status as a dancing queen, even if it’s in her kitchen.
I’d love to be able to dance. My current dancing style has been described as “sexy Muppet.” I’ve got some work to do.
Maybe this is me! Maybe I don’t have actual learning to do. I just need to find more opportunities to dance.
Who here dances around their kitchen in the morning/noon/evening/night? Come on, let me see those hands.
This morning, after turning on my internet radio (second-favorite gift from my former partner, first being fancy espresso machine), I found myself distracted from coffee making by some great grooves emanating from said radio. I programmed in my favorite jazz stations from all over North America (and one from France), and rotate/update as the spirit moves me.
This morning, even before coffee consumption, I found myself dancing to some funky jazz. Because of the miracle/burden of the internet, I looked up the playlist and found it: Houston Person, “Walking the Dog”. I recommend taking your phone or computer to your kitchen now, hitting play, and seeing what happens. Other locations may work just as well.
There’s nothing like a little Hammond B-3 organ to get you going in the morning.
Since it’s summer and I was having a moment of delightful leisure, I let myself go with the flow (please forgive the previous phrase–I’m feeling carried away). It was so fun. I kept dancing– moving my hips, adding in arms, no real footwork, just some lazy morning grooving.
The tune is 8 minutes long, so there was time for memories to rush in. Muscle memories showed up in waves. You see, I used to be/was/am a dancer.
I don’t remember any time in my childhood when there wasn’t groovy music playing, with someone swiveling hips, snapping fingers, etc. I was born into a Motown household in the 60s. We always had a funky soundtrack for the work of the day.
High school dances (yes we had them back in the late 70s) were all about the funk. The Isley Brothers, Earth Wind and Fire, and yes, even Lionel Ritchie were the rhythms of the day.
Ballet at age 8 was my rocky start to structured dance, abandoned 3 months after (don’t remember why). It took until college, when, on a whim, I signed up for tap class and ballet class, to discover my dancer self. Ballet was not where that happened. I enjoyed it and learned a lot about my body; taking ballet can teach you almost as much as yoga about what your body can/can’t/loves to/flat-out-refuses to do.
Lest you think that rhythm tap is a genre limited to jazz lovers (not that I find this a limitation, but…), check out the Syncopated Ladies‘ number to Prince’s “When Doves Cry”.
My prime tap years were from my late 20s through my mid-30s. I studied with great teachers in Boston (I even did master classes with Savion Glover and the late great Gregory Hines). I taught classes to adults and kids, did workshops, and studied privately with the above-mentioned Pamela Raff and also Katherine Kramer. I was able to perform with live jazz combos, solo and with friends and teachers.
Some gigs were more modest than others. Two friends and I, armed with boom box , went to an assisted-living facility to do a little show. We tap danced to recorded jazz standards and I sang a little bit while my friends tapped (our “crowdpleaser” number was All of Me). Halfway through the show, an announcement came on over the PA system, saying that the bus to Stop ‘n’ Shop was leaving in five minutes. We lost a third of the audience then. Whaddya gonna do? Seniors need groceries.
There’s no one reason why tap didn’t stay with me, or I didn’t stay with tap. I was changing jobs and moving, traveling a lot, and tap requires access to teachers and studios with wood floors and communities and connections. DO NOT TRY IT AT HOME, unless you live in a single family house alone or with a soundproof basement. It is loud. Very loud.
Lately I’ve been thinking about returning to the floor. Listening to more jazz has put me in mind and mood for dancing again. My body isn’t what it was then (no need for reminders about this; I’m trying to be nicer and more accepting, but having a harder time with it these days; another story for another post).
Can I still tap? Yes. Can I still boogie? Absolutely. Maybe it’s time to start dancing again.
Hey readers– any dancers out there? What makes you get your groove on (yes, I know you’re cringing just reading this; please forgive me). I would love to hear from you.
My actual tap shoes are in my basement (time to get them out!), but I’ll leave you with a portrait of my black-and-white Dansky custom tap shoes. Artist Shari Hersch was nice enough to do this as a commission for me. It was some of the best money I ever spent.
A few weeks ago I went to my mother’s Nia class with her. I like trying new things. Especially ones that ask me to move my body. I was inspired, too, by Tracy’s report on her new SUP on this blog. I didn’t have any good idea about what Nia was. I had gleaned that it was something dance-y, with maybe a dash of martial arts. Yes. And more. I’ll get to that. I also assumed that it wouldn’t be too challenging physically. After all, my mother, who is vigorous but in her 70s, does the class. I imagined it peopled with other women her age. I imagined it would be a dawdle. Nope.
I go to a lot of new-to-me movement studios. One of the first things I do when I’m traveling somewhere is research my workout options (besides running) for while I’m there. Going to a studio in a new city is a fun way to check out the vibe of the whole town. On occasion I’ll look back through the studios that pop up on my Mindbody app, reminding me of some of the places I’ve been—yoga in Asheville, Toronto and Boulder; spinning in Phoenix, Calgary and Portland; aerial in Reno and Paris, plus rowing and SLT in New York. Susan Meehan’s Nia class in London, Ontario is one of the friendliest, warmest new places I’ve ever been.
I was still nervous. I don’t go to dance classes terribly often. I’m a bit awkward, and I’ve never been good at following choreography. I get self-conscious about my lack of grace. In this case, I added the extra fear of being a disappointing daughter, all elbows and knees. To be clear, that’s a self-generated thought, not anything my mother says!
First thing I noticed—the age range in the class seemed to go from mid-thirties through well into the seventies. I revised my expectations around anticipated exertion. The class started quickly, which I like because it keeps me focused. I was a couple of beats behind for most of the class, but the sequences repeated enough times that I started to catch the groove. Nia is indeed dance-related, plus martial arts, plus women’s empowerment, plus root-chakra-flirt, plus wild and free, plus a red face and a fast heartbeat. And a whole lot of sassy booty.
That’s another thing I’m not good at: inhabiting the traditional sexy-hips-and-shoulder moves. They feel false in my body, like something put on to please other people, not myself. I feel sexy when I’m just home from a strong run, or striding across town in my favourite green velvet boots. Have I mentioned the Nia outfits? Love them. Pants that widen outrageously below the knee, possible ribbon adornment, sleeveless off the shoulder on one side and sheer on the other. That’s just what I witnessed at the class I went to. This is a workout with fashion flair potential.
The class also included a portion of free dance, or really free-to-move-however. I relish any opportunity to let my body climb inside some music and see what happens; so energizing. By the end of the class, despite my various bits of fear, I was sweaty and limber, and my heart felt big and full.
Will I go to Nia now that I’m home in New York? I’m not sure. I’d have to give up one of the other workouts I love so much. But just knowing that I have it as an option in my back pocket is great; for a day I might need a bit of vavavoom. And I have a workout for with my mum.
How about you—any Nia practitioners? Or other saucy workouts you suggest?
Several weeks ago for (Canadian) Thanksgiving I spent the weekend in Algonquin with the Western Outdoors Club. This is an annual trip which I have gone on several times. This year was the largest group I’ve been part of: 62 university students in 21 canoes!
There are several things I love about this trip (and about Western Outdoors Club in general):
the variety in skill level and equipment
the number of international students
how accessible the club makes trips like this
However, this year there was one thing I DIDN’T ENJOY and that was the weather: cold and wet. Weather forecast was for highs of 8 and lows of 2 with rain on and off most of the weekend. I’ve camped in much colder weather (-27 winter camping!) but I find fall weather much colder. I’m not sure why, possibly the damp but also possibly because I’m not mentally prepared for it and/or never seem to pack enough warm gear. That being said, I was not cold at night even though I was sleeping in my hammock tent.
Despite the cold it was a fun trip! If you don’t believe me, watch a video here…
You know how I can be when learning something new – I get all tangled up in helping my body move in the way my brain wants to and then I get annoyed with myself. My annoyance makes me tense and the tension makes me worse at whatever I was struggling with in the first place.
Yes, I do get on my own nerves just thinking about it.
One of the few times I have sidestepped this scenario is when I tried Zumba on the Xbox a few years ago. Instead of being frustrated when I didn’t ‘get’ it, I found myself laughing at my mistakes and then just carrying on. It was eye-opening.
Unfortunately, soon after I got into the habit of laughing at my ineptness, changes in the Xbox menu made it tricky for me to access Zumba easily. It was a tiny obstacle, but enough to deter me.
I remembered that feeling though. I am rarely casual about learning new things, and I hardly ever laugh in the process of making mistakes. I wanted to have that feeling again, in other contexts, but it didn’t happen.
Then, last spring, I was lucky enough to take a Nia dance class from my friend Elaine.
I made a mess of the movements* but I was laughing at myself. I was only getting about half of the choreography but I was having a grand time.
I have been trying to fit more Nia in ever since but I have only managed to make that happen in the past few weeks. Every Thursday morning, I go to class, flail around ridiculously and enjoy the hell out of it.
I can’t hear the changes in the music that tell me I should change steps. I routinely head in the wrong direction. I start too early and end too soon. As I told a friend of mine recently, I feel like I am gloriously awful at it.
I’m not putting myself down here. I’m probably not particularly bad at Nia – and the nature of Nia is that it doesn’t seem to matter how good you are anyway – I’m just celebrating the fact that I am not getting into that cycle of frustration while I learn. I am not the least bit concerned about how slowly I am learning – I am just reveling in the fun of the movements. I’m sure it helps that there are martial arts-type moves in the dances so I have a feeling of familiarity but, mostly, I’m just going with the feeling of glorious awfulness.
I LOVE being gloriously awful. I feel no pressure to get better at it – even though I am, no doubt, improving as we go along. Getting better just doesn’t seem like something I should focus on – having fun does.
Being in this space is really fun for me and it has my brain whirring – how can I bring this same feeling to other movement I am trying to learn? Can I enjoy being awful at a new pattern? Can I be gloriously awful at parts of Taekwon-Do while I learn?
I certainly intend to find out.
Are you gloriously awful at any forms of exercise? Is being awful part of the reason you enjoy it?
*Learning new moves WHILE matching them to music is a challenge, at the very least.
This week I went to hear a band I’ve loved since the early 80s– the English Beat. I last saw them in 1983, when they played at my university student center ballroom. Another good band opened for them. You may have heard of them– REM.
Back to the present day— looking around the concert venue at this week’s show, just about everyone I saw was in their 50s or so (like me). That wasn’t too surprising– this band was at their most popular when people around my age were in college. And everyone was having a whale of a time– the English Beat are a ska band (one of my favorite genres for dancing), so their music is about as danceable as it gets. If you doubt me, listen here…
The whole crowd was grooving and swaying, and my friends and I were dancing the whole time, jumping up and down, sweating, singing, shouting, waving arms, enjoying ourselves to our fullest capacities, expending all available energy. The drive home was a bit tiring, the next morning a little slower-moving than usual, but the evening was completely worth it.
Today is Mother’s Day, and this week’s dancing episode reminded me of how my mother always enjoyed (and still enjoys) dancing and music. We had music playing all the time in my house and on the radio. In those days in South Carolina it was a lot of Motown– R&B and Soul. In the 70s we welcomed in the funk, and my mom took me to see Earth, Wind and Fire. Check them out here.
Her favorite song to dance to with my dad was Sixty Minute Man, by Billy Ward and the Dominoes. They were experts at dancing the shag (apologies to English readers– it doesn’t mean the same thing here in the US), a dance still popular in the Carolinas. It’s a lazy-tempo dance, but with interesting footwork. You can see it in action here.
Jimmy Fallon got a lot of attention and laughs with his now-infamous Evolution of Mom Dancing collaboration with First Lady Michelle Obama. And it’s funny. But let’s not kid ourselves– Michelle Obama can move. So can my mom.
So thanks to my mom and all the moms for dancing with us, playing that funky music, and helping us discover joy in musical movement.
Happy Mother’s Day! (And if you like, you can still order Mom some swag from our website here.)