The sticky smell of please-don’t-judge-me perforates worse than moldy air freshener. Everyone clings to those they know or aims for invisibility. This is evening Zumba class, not seventh grade PE. The only way to tell the difference is a few more wrinkles, and we’ve all long since learned how to wear deodorant.
I walk in late, as usual, and the instructor is explaining how many calories we are going to burn as if it were a séance, and each little energy unit is a demon spawn to be purged into its fiery depth.
“I don’t want these to go flying across the room,” I say to a dark haired girl behind me. She smiles, and then laughs when I mime my rings careening across the room like ninja stars. I drop them in my bag, and she keeps staring.
The girl clings to the back of the room as if the stacks of chairs lined up along the edges will keep her safe. Everyone in the room has their own safety net—the pigeon-shaped lady at the front hides behind her enthusiasm. The big group at the center cluster together like salmon, two older women next to the instructor platform are so close to the mirror that I worry they might break the glass if their arms reach any further then they are in their current, half-hearted sashays.
I twist my neck to stare at the instructor—I do anything to avoid looking in the mirror. I hate mirrors almost as much as I hate bigots, unrealistic ideals of female beauty, and spelling the word “necessary.” No one looks good doing Zumba—though I may appear coordinated, and maybe even graceful, during the salsa steps, once the “hip-hop” moves start I lose all control of my body. I often choose freezing in horror over the strange convulsions my body seems to think are twerks, booty shakes, or the more polite dance terminology for such words: isolations.
A cute girl with glasses to the right of me wobbles with baby goat steps through each routine. The older women behind me move like Kermit the Frog in a tap dancing number, and the ladies next to the mirror do everything with indignant snarls permanently imbedded in their faces since puberty. The long blonde ponytailed girl in front of me is my opposite—her spine rolls over the length of her body sensually, just the way it should—but when the foot work gets a little more complicated, she stumbles, dumbfounded, vetoing her few moments of elegance.
I am not what you call a “health nut.” I don’t go to the gym to shed pounds or practice my cardio, I don’t count calories and my BMI is embarrassing. I go because it staves off what the physiatrist has noted as “moderate to severe depression,“ and gives me an excuse to crawl out of my parents’ basement and feel less like one of the a statistics about millennials that I keep reading on my laptop.
No matter the reason I go, I am in love with this shabby little gym. It is a human smorgasbord where my imagination pigs out, fabricating intricate stories about everyone who walks by. On days where I do not go to Zumba, I hit the treadmill a box seat to watch tough guys inflate their muscles, and old ladies pump away in stationary rowboats. Gym rats, gang members, short order cooks, tech workers, immigrants, WASPS, old men, and moms—everyone intermingles here. Even though the gym in the next suburb over may have newer equipment and hotter bodies, it could never compete.
I wish I could communicate this sentiment to all of the uncomfortable women around me. I want to walk up to the girl by the stacks of chairs and say, you are not alone—good for you for getting out there, for being vulnerable, for making it happen. I want to tell the rest of the class how wonderful it feels to look like idiots together. All of us awkward, and beautiful nonetheless. But when class ends we are strangers, we head for the exit solitarily, just as when we walked in.