Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Zumba, Dance, and Flow

I've been taking Zumba classes at my gym lately. It's a workout class along the lines of Jazzercise, but with international dance steps instead of jazz-style dance steps. The focus is Latin dance (the word itself, pronounced like rhumba with a Z, connotes the buzzing of a bee in Spanish), unsurprising given that a Colombian fitness instructor developed it; more than half of the steps are Latin-dance-inspired, though India, the Middle East, Spain, and West Africa make an appearance. (It's also notable that Zumba became popular in the U.S. when it was picked up by Special K in a promotional effort targeting the growing Hispanic consumer population.)

I loved the class at first. I'm an international dance dilettante -- I've taken classes in flamenco, belly dance, Latin, Slavic folk, West African, Argentine tango, and have mastered none. My thrice-weekly runs were getting stale, so when my gym started offering Zumba classes I thought I'd give it a shot. I picked up the moves immediately -- partly because I recognized basic steps like salsa from my dance dabblings, but mostly because the steps are designed to be picked up easily by anyone who happens to wander into a class. I left class drenched in sweat, feeling endorphin-chipper; I liked catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, hips twitching to a merengue beat, belly undulating to a Middle Eastern rhythm. The dances I like the best are the ones in which I know the actual steps. I could add in the little salsa kick even though the instructor leaves it out; I can do finger placements I learned in Middle Eastern folk dance classes when we're on the ersatz belly dance song. But when the faux Hindi song comes on (a Zumbafied version of "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, chosen presumably because it's the only song most American Zumbaers would recognize as Indian), my lack of background in Hindi dance meant that I found myself essentially doing the Pony during the eight-count side-to-side. I was getting my cardiovascular fitness in, sure -- but it ended there. I don't usually look at the other dancers because I'm too in the groove, but I did then, to see what I was missing -- and saw that we were all doing the Pony. What had initially seemed like something invigorating and, hell, sassy, began to seem fraudulent.

The whole idea of Zumba is that you're supposed to be having so much fun that you forget you're also getting a workout. But the only way to forget that you're doing something is to be wholly engaged in it, in a state of flow. And flow comes only from something that can be expanded, or from being in the moment once you've mastered something that was once complicated -- once you can tinkle out a Beethoven sonata on the piano, you've stopped expanding, but the autopilot your mind and fingers enters can still tap into a space that is eluded with other sort of autopilot activities like watching a movie you've seen before. Repetition can be a part of flow, but mere repetition can't be, unless the goal is something larger (like the followers of Sri Chinmoy who run for weeks on end to complete the "Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race").

Once the novelty effect wore off, I realized that I was learning nothing. The Zumba moves, while based on dances with more organic roots, aren't exactly going to make me feel comfortable at a salsa club. (There's one point in a salsa sequence in which Zumbaers hold up their hands in a partner-dance stance, which feels ridiculous when we're all salsa-ing solo.) They're created as a workout, complete with lots of squats to strengthen quadriceps -- and as a workout that everyone can follow, which means that the ceiling for expanding your moves is uncomfortably low. There was nothing to keep me expanding, which meant that instead of reaching the state of flow that would have actually made me forget I was getting a workout, I was checking the clock and getting tired.

Rob Horning at Marginal Utility labels this "the alluring danger of dilettantism," specifically in the context of Guitar Hero. "If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play?" he writes. Commenters who were fans of the game argued that playing guitar and playing Guitar Hero were two utterly different things, which makes sense to me. (I once attended a party where some members of a rock band who were coming back from a gig decided to wind down by playing Guitar Hero.)

In the same way, Zumba is not meant to be a dance class; it's meant to be a fitness class. The classes are offered at gyms, not clubs or dance studios. But that makes it even more of a threat to authenticity than Guitar Hero, because dancing is fitness. Even with the stops and starts of a dance class for novices, even without kicking your way across the floor in a complicated combination, I -- a dance dilettante extraordinaire -- have never left a dance class in any less of a good sweat. Horning's argument about the pleasure of mastery comes into sharper relief here when you look at the Zumba steps for, say, Argentine tango (which is used as a cool-down):

...and then look at the intensity of actual Argentine tango:

These are advanced dancers, sure, but even in a beginning class you learn enough to pull off a few sultry moves. It's not so much that Zumba will never teach you the moves the latter pair are doing; it's that you miss the opportunity to imagine yourself having the kind of heat that accompanies even basic competency of the tango. Zumba instructors are trained -- mine is a pleasure to be instructed by and to watch move -- but they are not dance teachers. You might move your arms up and down with the beat, but the subtle stylings that make a dance a joy to, well, dance, are totally absent.

When I was in my flamenco stage, I took a class that consisted entirely of learning how to stamp my foot. I never shimmied across the floor; I never whirled into a staccato eruption; I didn't even do any faux toreador moves. I stood there for an hour stamping my foot over and over again while the teacher shouted instructions while squatting at my feet. By the end of that hour, I was drenched in sweat, muscles clenched and aching, convinced that my toes were now only a mash of blood and tissue. "You had perhaps six good stamps today," the instructor said. "Six?" I asked. She smiled. "Six. That's promising," she replied. I forgot the aching muscles, didn't focus on the rate of progress -- I had learned something. (It was also a helluva workout.)

But the comparison isn't exactly fair. What's fairer is looking at another dance/fitness gathering I attend, Dance Dance Party Party. The idea couldn't be simpler: A bunch of women get together in a dance studio, turn down the lights, and, for 90 minutes, do nothing but dance. There's no instructor; the only thing we follow is the rhythm. Everyone chips in a few dollars to cover the cost of renting the studio; the music is DJ'd by whoever volunteers that week, meaning that the DJ brings a CD and plops it into the boombox the coordinator brings every week. The only rules: No boys, no booze, no judgment.

The DDPP crew tends to turn up in sneakers and sport bras, just like Zumbaers (though some DDPPers prefer long skirts and bare feet -- anything goes). But after five minutes the reason for that becomes clear: We're wearing gym clothes to dance because you sweat. We sweat not because we're doing squats to a merengue beat; we sweat because we are doing our best Molly Ringwald, or vogueing, or the Pony, or just grooving in the corner. For 90 minutes, we are one big dance machine -- people leave to refill their water bottles or take a breath by the air-conditioner, but then they rejoin the mass. There's an utter lack of self-consciousness that is pleasant at first, then intoxicating: It's a dancer's high, the sheer joy of moving your body however it wants to, surrounded by people doing the same.

You can walk in without knowing a single move and leave feeling like you're a dancing queen. You get a workout without feeling like you worked out. It's fun. In other words, it's what Zumba claims to be -- but instead of being the Guitar Hero of cumbia, it's your own version of, well, whatever.

There's one way in which Zumba matches DDPP and actual dance classes -- a sense of community. Our country has few social dance outlets left for adults -- we can go to nightclubs, sure, but then we have to deal with the set of accompanying social pressures. (This is why I'd be happy to see square dancing come back into vogue. Can some hipster take this up as an ironic cause already?) While men are welcome at Zumba (though not at DDPP), I've yet to see a man take the class -- except for one, who showed up drunk and ogled the instructor's butt. When she kicked him out and the class erupted into applause, I realized that part of the appeal of Zumba was that a bunch of women got to do quasi-Latin dance both by themselves and socially, without having to either coax a male partner into going or showing up solo and hoping to find the occasional partner with no motive further than a good cha-cha. (I know there are men who like to dance with no further agenda, and that women can have dance agendas beyond a quick-step -- but I've never had a man suggest to me that we salsa the night away.) Without a traditionally structured dance society, women who like to dance outside of a club setting are sort of stuck either going to solo-oriented dance classes or chancing it at partner ones . . . or going to places like Zumba or DDPP.

I'll probably go to Zumba again -- it's free at my gym (most dance classes run $15-$25 a pop), and it's nice to shake up my running schedule with a different cardiovascular workout. But I'll look at it as just that -- a cardio workout. And in a way, I'm glad I lost my zeal for it. I'd forgotten the joy I used to take in dance classes. Something always came up to prevent me from pursuing any one dance in particular -- I moved too far away from my belly dance teacher to make it worthwhile; proper flamenco shoes were too expensive; my lower back is too inflexible to even mimic West African dance. Zumba should seem like the antidote to all those little problems -- but instead, it illuminated how trivial those problems are when the reward is authenticity.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Obesity Justification

Dr. Jon LaPook asks over at Huffington Post, "Could the Obesity Fight Backfire?" -- as in, could it create a hyperawareness of one's weight and lead to an uptick of eating disorders?

Well, duh. It doesn't take an M.D. to recognize that the demographic that is vulnerable to restrictive eating disorders will jump upon the antiobesity train to justify their own behavior, and that those with nonrestrictive eating disorders -- specifically binge eating disorder -- are not going to be helped by the antiobesity's focus on portion control and food choices. (The problem for most of those eaters isn't nutrition ignorance; it's addictive behavior, and without addressing that, the idea of three square meals a day goes out the window.)

But more specifically, what I've seen is an ever-widening justification of the overwhelming body focus in women's magazines. The surge of eating-disorder awareness in the '90s meant that most of these magazines had to shape up their nutrition coverage. They never stopped telling you to lose weight, but in the past decade I've seen advocacy of liquid diets replaced by advocacy of wholesome meals. The glossies' words are telling us what our doctors are: Eat balanced meals and exercise, ta-da! (The magazines' images tell a different story, naturally. As much as editors crow about how they're forced to use thin models because designers make samples in size 4 -- maybe that's why size 12 Glamour model Lizzie Miller was naked? They couldn't possibly find clothes to fit her! -- the deeper reason is that if women suddenly started feeling like they didn't need to change their appearance, they'd stop buying the goods that the magazines advertise.)

Then along comes mass awareness of the obesity epidemic. Suddenly, instead of couching weight loss in terms of fitting into your college jeans, magazines could soberly proclaim that really, it was about your health all along. Instead of focusing on waistline measurements, a new set of statistics are of importance: cholesterol, body mass index. It's no surprise that the circulation for a magazine titled Women's Health has skyrocketed 30% in the past nine months (this is an enormous spike). Looking inside Women's Health, though, it's the same-old, same-old. Lose your belly (join the magazine's "Belly Off Club")! Conquer your cravings (food producers engineer processed foods to be addictive -- so make these cheesy fries instead! That'll conquer your cravings, right? But wait -- the website hosts a list of the "125 Best Packaged Foods for Women," so don't get too tied to the idea that you should be making your own meals)!* Ad pages for Women's Health competitors have dropped during the same period, despite containing similar content. It's possible that editors at Women's Health are sharper than the average bear; it's also possible that the mere presence of the word "health" makes it more appealing to the first-time reader. (A friend of mine was given a gift subscription by her aunt, an avid magazine reader who said, "I know you don't like women's magazines, so I got you this instead!")

This should all be good news, given that 2/3 of Americans actually are are overweight (and logically a good percentage of the readers of these magazines are as well); ideally the "health" tips surrounding weight loss would be targeting them and not the readers who don't need to lose body fat for health reasons. But women are reading these articles in fashion magazines, where "overweight" is invisible -- even the now-famous size 12 Glamour model, at 5'11" and 180 pounds, qualifies as "overweight" on the BMI scale by exactly one pound. So the weight-loss material pointed at the "overweight" reader is pointed at someone who isn't visually represented. Since "overweight" in our culture isn't neutral but a synonym for everything from sloppy to out-of-control to poor, all readers are left swimming in a sea of "health" advice. I think back to a conversation I had with my doctor at my last checkup. Like some magazine had directed me to do, I'd written out The List of questions I had about my body so that I wouldn't forget to ask them: Should I be concerned about my creaky knee; my mother is diabetic, could you check my blood sugar. As I pulled the piece of paper out of my pocket, the doctor sighed. "Ah, The List. You all have them. All you young, healthy women come in here with The List. And you know what? You're all healthy. The people who don't make The List are the ones who aren't."

Let's also not forget that the amount of space these magazines devote to weight loss hasn't increased proportionately along with America's obesity epidemic; magazines from 1992 have roughly as many pages devoted to weight loss as those today. The justification for those pages has changed, not the pages themselves.

The funny thing is that women's magazines aren't using the "epidemic" as a hook on their covers. It's still "lose weight fast!" on the cover; it's only when you look inside that the health angle is laid out. It's the same tactic used by best-seller Skinny Bitch, a book billed as a weight-loss time that turns out to be a treatise on veganism. It's a weird sort of whiplash: The hook still has to be the bottom line in order to catch one's attention -- lose weight now! But then the chatter itself turns out to be sensible in content, even if its context prevents it from being neutral.

And that's the very reason that Dr. LaPook's suggestion holds water: We don't live in a weight-neutral society, where "overweight" really does just mean "at increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, et al." And until we do, weight loss directives pointed toward women will, unfortunately, seem anything but neutral. Women with fully intact self-esteem remain unharmed; the rest, whether overweight or not, hear "health" advice and suffer.

*Lest I seem too harsh on Women's Health: Their relationship and sex advice is commendable for its focus on the reader and on strong communication. For example, a feature about "enjoying your breasts," which I expected to be about peekaboo push-up bras, was actually a list of ways to increase your sexual pleasure from your breasts (though the piece's subheading is pandering: "Guys get off on the sight of breasts -- no surprise there. But who knew they can double your pleasure too?").