I’m what some would call a morning person. Ideally, I like to witness the sun’s rising while my feet traverse a trail, relishing the quiet solitude. This personality trait also renders me useless by 8pm. Having used my last energy reserves to wrangle the kids to bed, I can barely muster enough energy to watch television. All of this makes my being here at this exercise dance class at 7pm on a school night a clear deviation from my norm. This is the sacrifice one must make for night owl friends.
I’ve only known Allison since she’s become a mother and a working professional – two things that often dim the vibrance of even the most exciting people. I don’t know what she was like before, but even now her personality sparks. As a mother, she’s the kind that buys karaoke machines as Christmas presents and lets her kids pile wriggling worms into her hands after a spring rain. When she goes to a wedding, rumors of her dancing till all hours of the morning waft back. The year we met, she and several of her friends turned 40. For her birthday, she organized her own underwear 5K through Denver. Then every other weekend she was off to Sonoma or a Roaring 20’s party for her various girlfriends. Since I’m the kind of person that never gets invited on trips to Sonoma, and would probably try to gracefully get out of it if I was, I’m sometimes shocked that we’re friends. Perhaps more shockingly, I’ve opened up and let her in. We’ve been brought together by a deep love for our kids and a shared passion for movement and fresh air. We’ve watched each others children, crusaded for recess, and talked about what a gift every day is while our kids chased butterflies. At the heart of it, we have a deep respect for one another for confidently being who we are.
Tonight, Allison has invited me and close to 20 other women to celebrate her birthday at her favorite exercise class: Grooves, Grit, and Grace. I was honored to have even been invited and grateful that I get to keep my clothes on for this birthday celebration. The room buzzes with conversation and I start to wonder if anyone would even notice if I wasn’t here. Allison would notice, I reassure myself. I force myself to make small talk with strangers when really all I want to do is change into sweatpants and cuddle with my husband.
This class, according to the website, trains “the full-spectrum human” and will “activate the many textures of our being.” The instructor, Jessica, finally arrives and ushers us into the studio where we’re instructed to remove our socks, shoes, and labels. The first two are easy and I join the forming circle in the center of the room trying to project the image that I’ve somehow done the third. Jessica then begins class with a lecture about how we are in the time of Aquarius and we should all channel this energy as we celebrate Allison. Don’t roll your eyes, I order myself. I barely even know my own Astrological sign, let alone how to channel it.
I myself am a fitness instructor, at a community center not a private gym. Despite attending many different types of exercise classes in my lifetime, I have never been to a class quite like this. It’s somewhere between a modern dance class and a self-empowerment seminar. Each song starts with a pep talk riddled with profanities on topics like love or feminism. Wow, if I said half of this stuff while teaching I’d for sure hear about it from my boss. I’m giving myself a different kind of pep talk. Don’t laugh, don’t snicker. Loosen up. You can do this. I’ve been welcomed into a different culture and I don’t want to be disrespectful. Our movements come from within as we channel our primal selves, limbs moving as if they were possessed. The regulars moan and grunt. Don’t stare, I instruct myself as my eyes dart around to see where the noises are coming from. The particularly guttural noises are met with a reverential “amen” from Jessica. Physically, my moves easily match that of the others. I army crawl across the floor, I bang my chest like a drum, I pretend to set my white flag aflame. Towards the end, we are summoned to a circle where I reluctantly hold the sweaty hands of the women standing next to me. Jessica talks about love. You’re a love not war type of gal, let’s give that a silent amen, my inner-free-spirit urges. My face remains impassive.
The pace has slowed. You’ve done it, I congratulate myself, but before I can applaud myself on “letting loose” Jessica tells us to find someone in the room that we love and give them a hug. Oh, no. I am not a natural hugger, but married into a family of huggers. Over the years, I’ve warmed to a cautious reception of the ritual. Maybe I can just stand here and wait for it to be over. I pause for a heartbeat, surveying the room. My classmates are turning towards each other arms outstretched. Nope, everyone’s doing it. You are stretching yourself! One hug, that’s all, one hug. I turn to the woman who gave me a ride, a woman I know casually because Allison introduced us and we both have children on the Autism Spectrum. We agreed to carpool because neither of us wanted to go alone and we’ve made a pact to get home at a reasonable hour. We exchange an awkward hug and turn back to Jessica feeling proud that we’ve stepped outside of our boxes. “Now go,” Jessica says in an encouraging voice, like a mama bird spurring her babies to take their first flight, “keep the love going.” What does that mean?!? I pause, panicked. The other women begin a dance of revolving hugs. Once an embrace is finished, they find a new partner. After giving Allison my only genuine hug of the evening, I falter and return to the outskirts of the classroom, my discomfort bubbling to the surface. How obvious is it that I’m standing here? I notice my carpool mate is also lingering. After a shared nervous chuckle she wanders into the fray, arms outstretched. Great, that means I’m the most uptight person in the room. I wish I was wearing shoes so I could pretend one needed to be tied. I take a deep breath and quickly hug a few people on the periphery.
My mind wills this section to be over. How long is this song anyway? How many people are we supposed to hug? A woman I’ve never met walks up to me and pulls me tightly into her arms. The hug is intimate and long. One one thousand, two one thousand, I count like I do when I’m trying to stay calm while getting x-rays at the dentist. I feel equal parts uneasy and awed that people can be this unfettered. Is this hug ever going to end? She releases me and gives me a warm smile. Her persisting eye contact seems to say, “I see you.” I have my doubts that she really does. I focus all my energy on not offensively ducking my head in embarrassment.
The class transitions into a stretching segment where we “ring ourselves out like rags” on the floor and visualize ourselves as “naked happy babies.” The movements are unconventional, but oddly appreciated by my body. See this isn’t so bad. Would I have said that if I didn’t have the hugging purgatory to compare it to? Jessica concludes with a genuine thank your for our attendance and some words of wisdom from her Indian guru. Before she dismisses us, she leads us in a somber rendition of “Happy Birthday” because she thinks the traditional version rushes too much and doesn’t focus enough on the meaning.
The class disperses and I locate my shoes, relieved to have something to fiddle with. I’m anxious to head home and release a torrent of suppressed thoughts onto my husband’s patient ears.
The next morning, I run into Allison as we’re dropping our kids off at school.
“Thanks for coming last night!” She says, “See, I told you it wasn’t much different than your classes.”
Um, okay. I pause then laugh casually. “It was maybe a little different.”
I can see her reviewing the class in her mind and she bursts into a grin. “Yeah, I guess she had us crawl around on the floor didn’t she? It was fun though, right?
“It was a good workout . . . definitely different than what I usually do,” I tentatively respond.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it . . . but, you probably won’t go again, will you?” She says with a smile.
I think of all the excuses or the false promises I could make and finally say, “Um, yeah probably not.”
Allison laughs and thanks me again for coming. Our talk turns to children, work, and weekend plans until we remember we have places to be, roles to fill.