Dancing · fitness

Fit, feminist and almost 100: the Martha Graham Dance Company in motion

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.

Yes, that’s it.

cycling · fitness

The value of 20 minutes

Last weekend I was in the Northampton/Amherst area of Massachusetts, cycling and coffeeing and culturing with my friend Norah. We rode primarily on the Central Mass Rail Trail, an 11-mile stretch of shady paved path, designed for multi-use. I posted about our cycling here– Together and separate cycling.

I’m back home and having a tough week, partly because of busyness and deadlines, and partly because of the death of someone in my circle of close friends and their families. I’m hosting a gathering of those close friends and family on Friday, so it’s both a busy and a sad time.

Today I had a therapy appointment, which is about 4 miles from my house. It’s an easy bike ride– somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes, strongly dependent on traffic lights. 13 minutes is my land speed record, requiring perfect sailing through all intersections.

Nonetheless, I find myself sometimes having an inner debate about whether to ride there and back. Considerations fly around, like:

  • Maybe it’s going to rain/hail/unleash locusts before I get back;
  • Maybe it’s too hot/cold/windy/muggy to ride comfortably;
  • I really should go to the grocery store/post office/random other store afterwards, so I need the car;
  • I’m feeling low and not up to the effort;
  • Insert random other free-floating anxieties here.

This morning, however, I remembered something: I rode all weekend with and without Norah, entirely in 20-30 minute chunks. The rail trail isn’t that long, and my destinations were all pretty close by. So I pedaled here and there and other places, all in small increments. By the end of the weekend, I had racked up 34 miles without even noticing. All from riding for 20 minutes at a time.

So I did it again today. It was easy: I have loads of biking clothes for multiple biking situations, my old reliable road bike was fully present and accounted for (just needed to pump tires), and it was ONLY 20 MINUTES.

Actually, I got there in 15 (no traffic to speak of– yay). And I rode home– didn’t keep track of the time, but it didn’t take longer than 20 minutes.

Samantha wrote about the benefits of short-distance cycling: In favour of shorter distances She also just wrote about short exercise classes: In praise of the 30-minute fitness class

So we’re both on board with this. What’s the value of 20 minutes?

(Its) value is far beyond rubies...
Its value is far beyond rubies.

Readers, how do you feel about doing something (walking/yoga/cycling/swimming/etc) for 20 minutes (or some short amount of time)? Is it harder to do? Easier to do? Do you always do it? Do you never do it? I’d love to hear from you.

cycling · fitness

Together and separate cycling

This weekend, my friend Norah and I are in Central Massachusetts, cycling, swimming, getting great coffee, and going to a dance concert at Jacob’s Pillow in western MA. We saw the Martha Graham Dance Company last night– stay tuned for a blog post next week about them.

This is our second year doing this weekend outing, and we’ve got it down pat. We stay in a modest motel across the road from the Norowottuck Rail Trail, which runs from east of Amherst to west of Northampton. It’s 11 miles long, and also lets you connect to other rail trails north of Northampton.

Friday afternoon we arrived and I was dying to get out on my bike. It was sunny and warm, and the path was green and leafy. See?

Leafy, green and shady bike path.  Ahhh...
Leafy, green and shady bike path. Ahhh…

Norah had both work and napping to do, so I headed out on my own. Of course, I wasn’t alone– there were other folks on bikes, skates, feet, and one person on a skateboard. Still, it was calming and refreshing to get out there on my own, just pedaling and looking around at the scenery.

I rode to downtown Northampton, reengaged with technology for a bit (texting and emailing on my phone), and then headed back. The ride back gave me a second dose of quiet enjoyment. And there were great visuals, too. See?

Rail trail bridge over the Connecticut river. Ooooh....
Rail trail bridge over the Connecticut river. Ooooh….

On Saturday, Norah and I set out together to ride to Amherst, find coffee, walk around, have lunch, and then make our way back to the motel. We were riding together, pointing out interesting-to-us sights to each other. Soon, though, Norah said to me, “I’d like to have a quiet ride. Why don’t you go on ahead?”

I did, riding at my own pace and in my own space. My road bike weighs about half of Norah’s sturdy commuter (complete with rack and panniers), and I enjoyed stretching my legs and covering more of the path. Soon, the scenery changed from farmland to ponds, with lots of birds and flora. See?

Pond with cat tails and lily pads. Egret was standing out of shot.
Pond with cat tails and lily pads. Egret was standing out of shot.

I was close to the end of the trail when I got a phone call from Norah, asking where I was. She was sitting on one of the rustic benches on the side of the trail, taking a break. I told her I would return as soon as I got to the end of the trail (in this sense, I’m a completist like Cate).

Soon I was back with Norah. We were both very happy and ready to search for coffee. So we did, along with meandering, eating lunch, and chit chatting with folks at a farmer’s market.

Then we got back on our bikes and rode to the motel together. We chatted a little, talked about plans for the rest of the day, pointed out interesting rights to each other. It was calm and relaxing and fun. We both got what we wanted from our outing– calm quiet cycling, calm together cycling. Yay!

Readers, do you ever split up when riding with friends? Do you like it? Do you prefer to ride together mostly, or separately, or a combo? I’m curious.

beauty · fitness

Taking back fat phobic images

You know, sometimes you’re in a spot where the only way forward is with the help of a GIF. As a non-early adopter of both texting and GIF-ing (yes, I know it’s annoying, but I can’t/won’t stop), I’m still in the thrall of sending GIFS to, well, everyone. Undoubtedly this phase will pass (and perhaps not soon enough). But, in the meantime, I’m living my best GIF-sending life.

The other day I was texting my friend Pata, who was sad on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. In the course of the back-and-forth, we talking about drowning in emotions vs. swimming through them. I mentioned how it was good we were both lifeguards for each other when the waves got rough (please don’t judge me for being sappy here…)

Then, it occurred to me: time for a lifeguard GIF! And what better one than… wait for it…

BAYWATCH!

Here is the one I sent.

Pamela Anderson (I think), running to save someone on BAYWATCH!
Pamela Anderson (I think), running to save someone on BAYWATCH!

However, looking through the other candidate GIFS my iPhone handily provided, I saw another one I liked much much better. Then I sent it. Here it is:

A large woman NOT from the cast of BAYWATCH, running to the ocean as if to save someone.
A large woman NOT from the cast of BAYWATCH, running to the ocean as if to save someone.

I LOVE THIS. I LOVE HER. I LOVE HER EXPRESSION. I LOVE HER BEACH RUNNING STYLE. I LOVE HER SUIT. I LOVE HER SENSE OF HUMOR. I LOVE HER STRENGTH. I LOVE HER MOXIE.

Maybe/probably/certainly people are using this GIF to express fat phobia. Shame on them. But I bet she made it to express fat power. To personify fat grace. To demonstrate fat strength. I am there and loving it.

I hereby promise you, dear readers, that sometime I will:

  • make some GIFS of ME doing some active things
  • take pleasure and pride and humor in the making of them
  • distribute them copiously (with the forbearance of my friends)
  • take in the FACT (not idea or hope or possibility, but FACT) that I am– if not exactly cool– instead strong and funny and graceful and attractive and eminently watchable.

I didn’t make any GIFs this week, but here is a series of photos of me pretend-dramatically jumping from one rock to another, by my niece Gracie. My nephew Gray is on the left. Definitely gearing up for more projects like this…

Hey readers, how do you feel about pictures or videos or other representations of you doing your active/physical/movey things? What makes you feel good about them? I’d love to hear from you.

fitness · soccer · team sports

Women’s soccer: questions of pay, politics and (mis)perceptions

The United States women’s national soccer team (USWNT) won the World Cup this year—their fourth. They played 20 games last year, posting 18 wins and two draws. The United State men’s national soccer team played 11 games last year, posting three wins, five losses and three draws. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

1.Question of pay. is the USWNT paid equitably? By “equitably”, we could mean something like “paid the same as men’s professional soccer in accordance with”:

  • their win-loss record, compared to those of the men’ teams
  • their tournament play/record, compared to mens’ teams
  • the prize money offered in the tournaments they play in
  • prize money offered in professional soccer tournaments in general
  • revenues generated by league and tournament games
  • revenue generated by sponsorships, merchandise, viewership, etc.
  • I could go on

Yes, we know: economics is complicated. But do we have some idea of the answer? We do– the answer seems to be “no”. The USWNT is not paid in accordance with any of the above-listed measures. How do we know this? Here are some informative bits from articles I read (here and here and here).

US women’s soccer now has edged out US men’s soccer in terms of game revenue generated ($50.8M vs. $49.9M)

The US Soccer Federation sells broadcast ad sponsorship rights for the women’s and men’s teams together, so they haven’t provided information to separate out the revenue streams.

Nike’s highest-selling soccer jersey is the USWNT’s home jersey. Here it is:

The USNWT home soccer jersey-- white, with blue and red stripes on the sleeves, and logo on front. Also back view.
The USWNT home soccer jersey– white, with blue and red stripes on the sleeves, and logo on front. Also back view.

The USWNT is paid a guaranteed base salary, while the US men’s soccer team is paid in bonuses alone. However, the men are paid when they play (win or lose), so their annual pay depends on how many games they play in a year.

The total prize money for the women’s World Cup is about $30M, whereas the FIFA men’s World Cup prize money is around $400M.

The US men’s and women’s teams have different contracts under different collective bargaining agreements. The US men’s team has publicly stated its support for increased pay equity for US women’s soccer.

The USWNT has sued the US Soccer Federation for changes in their pay structures (read more about it here):

All 28 female players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) — their employer — in U.S. District Court in March, alleging they are paid less than the men and are provided with less support, despite their consistent outstanding performance. The lawsuit also argues the team’s success has “translated into substantial revenue generation and profits” for USSF and “during the period relevant to this case, the WNT earned more in profit and/or revenue than the MNT.”

The soccer federation denied the claims in the women’s lawsuit, arguing in a May court filing that the pay differential between the men and women players is “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex” and that the two teams are “physically and functionally separate organizations.”

The Washington Post, in the article I cited above, goes into much more detail, but their conclusion is this:

Are the women players paid less? Sometimes. When the female players have appeared to make about the same or more money, they’ve had to turn in consistently outstanding performances on the world stage. Even with those feats, earning the same amount as the men’s soccer players was near-impossible under the previous collective-bargaining agreement.

The new agreement has provisions that may reduce the difference in bonuses for friendly games and tournaments, but there is — without question and for whatever reasons — still a massive gap between men’s and women’s World Cup bonuses.

2.Question of politics. Is the question of the USWNT’s pay becoming a nasty political fight? That one’s easy.

Yes indeedy!
Yes indeedy!

Prominent Democratic politicians have not just tweeted support, but in fact introduced legislation requiring that US Soccer pay women’s and men’s teams equally. In response, the US Soccer Federation hired two lobbying firms to present a case that the women’s teams are not paid inequitably. Groups are battling over the numbers, which (as I pointed out above) are complicated. So far the lobbyists are working on Capital Hill but haven’t registered yet (they are required to register within 45 days of beginning work). The lobbyists and US Soccer say they are trying to give accurate information, and the USWNT say that the lobbyists and US Soccer are trying to derail legislation and mislead legislators. Politico reported the following interchange:

...one of the lobbyists representing U.S. Soccer — Ray Bucheger, a former Democratic congressional staffer who’s now a partner at FBB — told a Democraticcongressional staffer late last month that one of the bills could jeopardize the country’s chances of hosting future Women’s World Cups, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Bucheger declined to comment.

3.Question of (mis)perception. It is, sadly, true that lots of people hold women’s sports in lower esteem than men’s sports. And there are loads of reports and surveys and studies that show that non-professional-athlete men think they are as good or better athletes as world-class professional women athletes. You have no doubt seen the survey, published here, that 1 in 8 men in the UK surveyed believed they could take a point off tennis titan Serena Williams.

Serena's bullet serve, meme saying "I'd really like to see them try".
Yeah. Me, too.

In the comments section of this article (I know, don’t read the comments ever, but I’m doing this for blog research purposes) I saw exactly this same view: some people said that the USWNT were less good soccer players than mediocre men’s professional teams. Some cited a 2017 scrimmage with a US Soccer development program under-15 boys’ team (that the USWNT graciously did to teach the boys some techniques) in which the final score was 5-2 in favor of the boys’ team. You can read the real story here. You also might be interested to hear that in 2017 (maybe encouraged by the USWNT’s participation?) US Soccer added some girls’ development soccer teams (finally).

Other commenters said that this is the way of all women’s sports, that professional women athletes pale in comparison with (most? all?) male athletes in terms of performance. So it’s okay to pay them less and think less of them as athletes (or not to think of them as athletes, period).

REALLY?!

Person taking in a long breath, with caption "using deep breathing to calm down".
Let’s all take a deep breath now.

Responding to this general claim– that women just aren’t as good/strong/interesting athletes as men– takes a lot of hard work. Scholars and activists and athletes have been and are currently spending their careers responding in a bunch of ways. Some of those ways include:

  • carefully documenting and framing the comparative histories of sports and athletic development programs for boys and girls, pointing out the myriad disparities girls experience in everything from resources to coaching to goals to opportunities to social support, etc.
  • framing and revealing the historical and social contexts in which girls and women interested in physical activity/athletics are treated; in short, it’s not good.
  • providing context for the ways media coverage of women athletes treats and judges their athletic performance, I blogged about the juggernaut UConn women’s basketball team, stuck between a rock and a hard place– media criticized them for being too good and messing up the sport. Really. Read about it here.

What I hope and even expect is that, with increased support and programming, society’s perceptions of girls and boys and men and women as athletes will change. Then we will be able to see and value girls and women as the athletes they are and can be.

Readers– what do you think about our current atmosphere of sports development and outlets for girls and women? Any stories or ideas or suggestions you want to share would be most welcome.

A girl, throwing a heater over the plate.
A girl, throwing a heater over the plate.
fitness · yoga

Competitive yoga: oxymoron, abomination or just a thing? You make the call

We at Fit is a Feminist Issue have a wide variety of personal viewpoints on yoga. I’m a huuuge fan myself, and have been immersed in it for the past four years or so (I’ve practiced off and on for 30 years). Tracy does yoga and meditation regularly and has even done the 108 sun salutation practice (108 Sun Salutations– Oh My!) Cate, inspired by Tracy, did 108 sun salutations on Christmas morning while on vacation in Australia (108 Sun Salutations on Christmas Morning). Christina has done yoga challenges, Mina has contemplated her toes during yoga, and several of our bloggers have tried goat yoga (for a compendium of our goat yoga posts, look here).

But nowhere in the vast oeuvre of Fit is a Feminist Issue will you find us discussing competitive yoga. Why not, you might ask? Don’t we have a responsibility to cover topics of import and relevance to the community? Indeed, we do. So, let’s settle in, breathe, and begin.

What is competitive yoga? It’s hard to get a neutral explanation; even its Wikipedia page is disapproving. So here goes: competitive yoga is a sport in which participants do yoga asanas, or poses, and are judged on them. The poses they do are very advanced or are extreme modifications of advanced poses, requiring flexibility and strength well beyond what any yoga practitioner needs or ever demonstrates in a class or workshop or retreat.

Pictures will make this clearer. Here are some:

Competitive yoga seems to combine yoga asanas with contortionist performance. That’s cool; it’s not what my body can or wants to do, but y’all go!

However, using the word “yoga” upsets a lot of people. In a Yoga Journal article on a documentary about competitive yoga (because of course there’s a documentary about it), yoga teachers expressed their unhappiness about it.

“I think competitive yoga is a form of misappropriation if they’re calling it yoga and making it look like they’re really doing yoga and competing,” Breaking India author Rajiv Malhotra says on-camera. Other yogis agree with him, suggesting that the focus on a mere three minutes of asana leaves out the spiritual side of the practice. “The word yoga competition becomes so offensive, because yoga is much more than posturing,” adds New Jersey yoga teacher Loretta Turner.

I haven’t seen the film, but we can all access it here.

I’ve been thinking this week about the idea of trying to perfect a yoga pose– being in competition with others, or even yourself. I admit that I do this often in yoga classes myself. I try to stretch more deeply, get those palms on the floor, straighten those legs, intensify that lunge, you name it. My friends have joked for years that I am competitive even in yoga class. I get the joke, and there’s truth in it.

What I love about my own approach to yoga, is that my efforts– for more intensity, for trying modifications, for stretching myself (literally), are about ways I want to feel, not ways I want to look. And they are all about what’s going on in my own body and mind and heart and feels.

On Friday I went to my absolute favorite yoga class– gentle and restorative yoga– with my favorite yoga teacher Liz Reiser at Artemis, my local and beloved yoga studio. My sister Elizabeth and niece Grace went with me. We all had different experiences there, as we have different bodies, different body and yoga histories, and were in different emotional and physical states that day. That day, when we did yoga nidra, an extended deep relaxation, I did it with my legs up the wall, not a standard pose for yoga nidra. It can feel uncomfortable, and you need hamstring flexibility for it to work. But I have that, and that evening it works blissfully. I felt calm and settled and relaxed and quiet. It was wonderful.

My sister and niece lay on their backs with legs on bolsters, covered with a blanket. It was good and okay for them, respectively.

I would not call my Friday experience competitive. I would call it attentive to the variations of life. Sometimes you are in the zone. Sometimes you are distracted. Sometimes you are injured or otherwise tender. Sometimes you are annoyed or distracted (maybe by goats). What I love about yoga is that the goal is to realize where you are, and do what you want and feel like you need to do. And you’ll have some experience or other. And that’s what winning is in yoga– have the experience you have.

Om.

What do y’all think about competitive yoga? Working on super-hard poses? Not working on them? Is this inspiring, off-putting, amusing? I’d love to hear from you,

cycling · fitness

To e-bike or not to e-bike?

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing e-bikes everywhere: in the news, in my Facebook feed, and all over the place in the real world. Last Wednesday, while driving oh so slowly through morning traffic on my way to a critical thinking workshop, a woman on an e-bike zipped by us all in the bike lane. I looked on in envy and admiration. I was carpooling with a friend to a disclosed location 40 miles away, so biking there wasn’t an option.

But a lot of the time biking is an option. I bike not just for fun, but also for errands and meetings near where I live. Most places I go in my part of the Boston area I can get to within 20-ish minutes on a bike. I can’t say the same for driving: there’s the current road construction chaos and the omnipresent parking problem, both against a backdrop of congested urban streets. For this kind of cycling I have to pay very close attention to what’s going on around me, but I tend to get where I’m going quite efficiently and in good time. No need for an e-bike, it would seem.

Then there’s my commute to work.

My university is 41 miles from my house. I commute generally 3 days a week, about 30–32 weeks a year. This is not horrible. I’m lucky that I have the option of working from home 2 days a week, and also in the summer and during school breaks.

And yet.

I hate the drive to and from work. It takes an hour to get there– I leave after 9am to avoid the morning traffic crush– but it takes anywhere from 1:15 to infinity to get home, which is during the evening rush hour. Yes, yes– I listen to podcasts and audio books. But it is still a long and not fun drive.

There are public transportation options, and I’ve tried them from time to time. It involves either:

  1. walking to the bus stop near my house; taking the bus to the subway (called the T); taking the subway to the train station downtown; taking the commuter rail to school (47 minutes); walking 10 or so minutes to class or office. OR
  2. Cycling to the train station (around 45 minutes depending on traffic lights); changing clothes in the train station bathroom, as I’m sweaty after that long a ride; taking train to school; walking or cycling to class or office (depending on whether I took my bike on the train).

Either of these options makes my commute take 1 hour 45 minutes–2 hours EACH WAY. Blech. I’ve duly tried to make myself adjust to this over the years, but it never sticks.

Enter the e-bike option.

In a big fancy survey of e-bike owners, they listed a bunch of reasons why they chose e-bikes (over driving and over regular bikes). Here’s the big fancy graph of their responses:

Lots of reasons why people switched to e-bikes.
Lots of reasons why people switched to e-bikes.

All of these reasons make a lot of sense. Of course a bunch of these motivations would promote non-e-bike riding. However, they also cited a bunch of barriers to standard bike commuting. Here’s the fancy graph with that info:

Barriers to riding a standard (non-e) bike.
Barriers to riding a standard (non-e) bike.

These reasons make a lot of sense, too. For me, the factors that are motivating me to test-ride some e-bikes are:

  1. An e-bike would reduce my commuting time; by how much, I’m not sure.
  2. I’ll likely be less sweaty when I arrive at the train station, which means not changing in the bathroom and also arriving at class looking less disheveled (the train arrives 12 minutes before class starts).
  3. Given 2., I think I’d bike commute for more of the year; in the colder months, I would be less sweaty (I sweat while cycling no matter the weather– that’s the fact), which would make the rest of my commute more comfortable.

So what is holding me back?

  1. Price– e-bikes are still very expensive. From very preliminary research (more will be forthcoming and duly reported here), decent ones start around $2500 and go up from there. Way up.
  2. I’m not an early adopter of new technology. I prefer waiting until the kinks are worked out, more and better features appear and the price drops.
  3. I’m not sure how much shorter an e-bike commute would be. It’s about 8 miles to the train station from my house, but it’s a very congested route on city streets with loads of traffic lights. My land speed record there on my road bike is 38 minutes. It’s not clear how much the e-bike would cut the time of the trip.
  4. It’s not clear how much less sweaty I would be, either. Pedal-assist bikes do require pedaling, so it will take some experimenting to see how my body behaves.

What do you think? Do you have an e-bike? How do you like it? Do you want an e-bike? I’d welcome any thoughts you have on the matter. I’ll report back as I try some out.