7 April 2020

Why I loved to Zumba*


My toes struggle to keep up.

One, two, one, one goes the unrelenting Zumba beat. As I try to mimic our indefatigable instructor my tuckshop arms jiggle. The whole class whoops with joy. “Whoo hoo”, we cry. En masse, our cellulitic thighs wiggle to the music, and we do jazz hands. I laugh with strangers while executing a semi-perfect spin, trying not to fall over.

For a moment we are all Shakira compressed into J-Lo. We are all grace, rhythm and coordination. Our minds are on stage while our feet thump emphatically on the grey, leisure centre carpet.

I feel the serene face I learned to adopt when ballet dancing as a child, crack into a smile.

For an hour our sweating wobbling reality is transformed. We are dance queens. Muffin tops and middle-aged thighs, we just don’t care.

Coming back to earth after class I wonder why we women cannot sustain this joy and freedom into the rest of our lives.

It seems even in this modern day there are societal restrictions on everything women do.

Don’t dress too provocatively or one might be regarded as a slut. Don’t dress too plainly or one might be considered dowdy. Don’t talk too loudly and assert your rights or you will be considered a shrew. Then throw into this mix the public adoration of the ideal figure, presented young, shapely and on social media.

The self-criticism women constantly exercise keeps us in a prison. It is no wonder many women consider themselves “less than” as a default position, and censor their own bodies.

As walking evidence of how women have absorbed these beliefs into themselves like water, I watch my patient Carol stagger into my consultation room grasping a wheelie frame. She is 72 but with the mind, wit and sensibilities of a 30 year old. She’s reed thin. Stick-like arms protrude from her summery top.

She prods non-existent flesh around her waist and wills herself to be even thinner, while the bones that barely scaffold her skeleton crumble into dust.

“Carol,” I say, “You’re not fat!”

“But yes, I am,” she replies. She smooths her knobbly hands over her jutting iliac crests. “I’m just not going to gain any weight. I love being thin.”

“But why?” I question.

“I look better in my clothes,” she replies.

“An extra layer of padding would cushion you in your next fall. It could be your hip that breaks next time,” I counter.

“I’d rather die than put on weight!” she responds, glaring.

I give up. Arguing with her is pointless, as she has an ideal figure in her mind’s eye and I fear it’s Twiggy. Instead, I make sure she is taking her calcium and vitamin D tablets and update her denosumab reminder date. It makes me wonder how many women I have treated really have a hidden eating disorder.

Sure there were the skeletal 60-year-old women whose osteoporosis was suddenly apparent after their spines cracked in a rude fashion with minimal trauma. But perhaps many younger women under 40 who struggled to conceive and seemed very thin might have also been affected.

It might have been an easy slide for some girls who danced or played sport obsessively to then become amenorrhoeic, quietly accepting it as the price to be paid for their craft. For some, their cycles never returned when they stopped intensive exercise, leading to infertility.

I remember a short phase I had in my teens when the refusal of food felt like a virtue. A photograph of myself would have revealed a mahogany coloured girl, under a shock of over-permed hair, peering through the proverbial coke bottle glasses and braces. The rapid shrinking of my limbs gave me a hollow sense of achievement. However, a family holiday overseas put paid to my self-imposed starvation. The tempting aromas of curry laksa soon translated themselves into a comfortable coverage over my clavicles. After three steady weeks of chicken satay and other local culinary delights, my periods returned.

Not so lucky was another girl at school I shall call Penny. Her deep-set deer eyes still haunt me to this day. Her rickety knees seemed barely capable of carrying her frame up the stairs to the boarding house. Her friends were co-conspirators. I would hear the occasional words “no dinner”, or “be careful” stray on the wind.  I remember seeing the fine down, visible in the sunlight that covered her all over like sinister velvet. Fatigue was her constant enemy like a smothering blanket. Perhaps unhelpfully, she was anointed head girl. It was as if she had been rewarded for her struggles against that ever-present enemy – food.

As a self-engrossed teenager, I didn’t recognise anorexia when it was right there in front of me. For Penny the starvation knew no limit, no end. I wonder what eventually happened to her? Perhaps she had ended up with three vertebral fractures, an autoimmune disease and bilateral broken wrists like Carol, or worse. Maybe she recovered, and was leading an unremarkable life, fighting unremarkable daily battles just like the rest of her 50- something year old schoolmates.

I double-knot my shoelaces as I ready for another Zumba session. Around me other women of all ages flex their elbows in anticipation. We pull our lycra tops over our variously assorted bottoms and stamp impatiently.

Phil our instructor cranks up the music. “Are you ready?” he cries. He flicks his hair back.

“Yes, we are!” and we do the same.

Today we will prance about as if no one is looking. Because, really, they’re not. We pose, making believe we are rehearsing to perform on a Mardi Gras ?oat. Hips out, wiggle that booty. We’re here, we’re clear, and out to conquer the world. One dance step at a time.

*I have no financial interest in the Zumba franchise and this column was written before the COVID-19 crisis closed down the fitness centres. But one day they shall open again … All names have been changed.

Dawn Oi is a GP in Melbourne who hones her literary skills by writing referral letters all day

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