By Hania Powell
I have never been a very athletic person. In fact, sports and I have a dark and complicated past, riddled with trauma, injury, and worst of all, unisex jersey shorts. As a kid, my parents enlisted me in sport after sport, hoping in vain for a child to cheer on and a team to slice oranges for. (As a side note, has anyone else noticed that wherever there are mothers and sports, there is an omnipresent, seemingly infinite amount of orange slices? I have a theory that slicing oranges is an ancient bonding ritual and rite of initiation into the Cult of Soccer Moms.)
At first, my coaches were disappointed in my reluctance to leave the sidelines—apparently, reading books during practice and refusing on principle to touch anyone else isn’t the best way to play contact sports—but from the first time I demonstrated my total lack of hand-eye coordination and deep fear of balls (yes, as a lesbian, I get the Freudian irony), they all seemed to develop a newfound appreciation for my uncanny talent of keeping the bench warm. Throughout elementary and middle school, I cycled through pretty much every generic sport you could name: swimming (I almost drowned while attempting Butterfly), basketball (I was informally asked to leave the team after scoring my first hoop in the other team’s net), soccer (the first time someone passed the ball to me in a game, I panicked and ran off the field), tennis (I hit myself in the head with the racket on multiple occasions), and volleyball (which was surprisingly uneventful).
My adolescence-long stint with athletics officially ended in eighth grade, during my second month on the local softball team. I was zoning out in the outfield, humming a Fergie song that drowned out the frantic yelling of my teammates, when everything went black. I later awoke to 15 sweaty faces staring down at me, a softball sized lump between my eyes, and a sudden spiritual revelation: I hate sports. As in, I really hate sports. And so, I swore off physical activity and embraced my natural form: the type of person that wheezes going up the first flight of stairs and is entirely too content that way.
Upon entering college, however, I began hearing some disturbing rumors surrounding physical activity: that it’s “good” for you, that it’s important for your mental health, that it prevents sickness, that it even makes you live longer. Obviously, I was incredulous. I had lived throughout high school as the human equivalent of a pile of mashed potatoes, and I was doing just fine. I wasn’t about to let a few measly scientific facts put me off of my mission to avoid athletics until my pleasant, early death; my body may have been iron deficient, but my will certainly wasn’t. My muscles were weak, but my conviction was strong. However, as most people know, the world has a way of wearing you down—especially when you can only bench press the weight equivalent of a malnourished kitten. Sure enough, after putting on the classic freshman poundage and donating the majority of my skinny jeans to my 14-year-old brother in the height of his Emo phase, somehow the argument for working out became more persuasive. Forget an extended life span—I just wanted to fit back into my boy band pants. And so, full of triglycerides and dread, I embarked upon my mission to get physically fit.
As a strong believer in cosmic signs that mean exactly what I want them to, I should have known working out was a bad idea from the moment I spelled “exercise” wrong four times in a row on my quest to Google physical activities that would get me a six pack in under three minutes. My mind raced and my hands shook as I scrolled through the search results; whether from trepidation or the five cups of coffee I consume every day before noon, I’m not sure, but it still felt ominous. Image after image popped up in my browser of toned, scantily clad people in difficult, contorted positions, flexing their abs and thrusting their pelvises into the air like they were practicing a weird one person Kama Sutra. Mildly aroused and thoroughly alarmed, I clicked through to the first YouTube video that didn’t look like it could double as a low-budget porno—and my life was forever changed.
As a strong believer in cosmic signs that mean exactly what I want them to, I should have known working out was a bad idea from the moment I spelled “exercise” wrong four times in a row on my quest to Google physical activities that would get me a six pack in under three minutes.
The video demonstrated a type of workout called “hip-hop cardio,” instructed by a dynamic young man going by the vaguely sadomasochistic title of “The Fitness Marshall.” As a gay woman in the south, I’m generally wary of any man in camo pants, but something about the Marshall’s warm demeanor and perfectly coiffed hair put my soul at ease. Still, I was hesitant to go beyond watching his videos and sympathy sweating from the comfort of my own bed. Hip-hop wasn’t exactly a genre I’d ever considered sampling, because like most forms of dance, hip-hop unreasonably requires both hand-eye coordination and a sense of rhythm. I mean, it’s not that I’m totally hopeless in that department. In fact, I was tapping my foot along to the Wiggles theme song from an impressively young age, and on the extremely rare occasion I do go to clubs, I can mindlessly gyrate my hips with the best of them. Hip-hop specifically, however, is a beautiful art that I didn’t want to sully with awkward attempts at grace.
From what I’d seen on YouTube and So You Think You Can Dance, hip-hop required a great deal of skill, and an even greater amount of swag. Unless you’ve skipped every preceding paragraph, you should already know that I am not the type of person who possesses any semblance of swag. To further illustrate this fact, I confess that as I write this, I am sporting house slippers, boxer briefs, and an honest-to-god, unironic golf sweater. I have about the same amount of swag as the variety of dad you don’t let drop you off at school on the first day. I love watching hip-hop, but I’d never given thought to attempting it myself; I strongly believe hip-hop is an elevated art form, and I’d always been of the opinion that forcing me to do hip-hop would be like a giving a kindergartner a crayon and locking them inside the Sistine Chapel. I was desperate, however, and in truth, my Vatican City was more of a dark, locked apartment with just enough floor space to move without punching a hole in the wall. So, out of excuses and seduced by the Marshall’s confident gaze, thus began my journey.
Going by the old “safety in numbers” adage, I persuaded (see: blackmailed) my roommate into joining me, and after borrowing a pair of sneakers and horrifying spandex shorts (I have an 18th century level aversion to showing my legs), I felt ready for business, like pork packed neatly into its tight intestine casing. I was a sausage ready to hit the hip-hop market. After carefully locking all of the doors, closing the blinds, and smashing every mirror in the apartment, the time had finally come to, quite literally, face the music. And it actually wasn’t awful. From the first moment Fifth Harmony’s dulcet tones mingled with the Marshall’s nasal words of encouragement, I knew I’d found my pseudo-athletic niche. They told me that, baby, I was worth it, and I really believed it. The beat took over: my pre-pubescently flat butt shimmied, my limbs flailed, and I felt like a white, rhythmically impaired Shakira. It was intoxicating. There is a certain freedom that comes with dancing in a dark, windowless space – there are no expectations, no standard of basic hand-eye coordination that you need to meet, and you can construct a completely unrealistic image of what you actually look like. In reality, I was Cole Sprouse; in my mind, I was MC Hammer.
That’s not to say I didn’t encounter trials throughout the process. I found that dance can teach us a lot about ourselves—both positive and negative—and the lessons aren’t always easily learned. For example, I made the concerning discovery that my sweat smells vaguely of spaghetti, which is probably indicative of my rich Italian heritage (which makes up roughly 25 percent of my genetic ethnicity by Subjective White Person Math, and manifests mostly through my apparent emission of BO with a hint of garlic and basil), and that was only the beginning. This revelation was the predecessor to other profound moments of heightened self-awareness: my attempts at physical activity also revealed that I have the stamina and flexibility of an overweight guinea pig, and about the same amount of mental fortitude.
There were many times when I felt like giving up and returning to my slug-like existence. Over the course of a few weeks, my roommate and I overcame the grueling tests of will that accompany healthy living, such as coping with the urge to consume a large animal after each workout, the inability to sit on a toilet after a session without feeling as if our thighs were in the seventh ring of Hell, and the horror of eating anything that boasts a higher nutritional value than that of synthetic rubber. However, the abs chiseled by Michelangelo and Fabio-esque body of each instructor kept me motivated, and the fun of dancing with abandon was something I actually came to look forward to. My ego bore the patronizing ease with which the Marshall executed every move, and I came out stronger. Within a month, I could already walk to and from Sutton without taking periodic self-pity breaks, and I could even execute a brisk 20-minute jog without convincing myself that my stomach cramps were actually colon cancer.
It’s been over half a semester since I first stepped out of my fear and into the wild world of hip-hop cardio, and I’m happy with the progress I’ve made. Nobody has died a gory, athletics-induced death, and I even purchased my first pair of running shoes. Admittedly, my flab was (and is) still there, but that really wasn’t the point of my journey. Body fat is both cute and essential to keeping me warm in the winter (I think of it as a wise investment for the apocalypse – natural food stockpile, y’all), and it’s not something anyone should feel bad about. No, my journey was more about leading a healthier life and growing more comfortable with my body, and hip-hop cardio allowed me to do that. It took me 19 years to figure out a way of staying in shape that worked for me, and even now it’s only something I’m willing to do on my own terms (i.e. in a dark, locked room). And the thing is, that’s okay. Living well is subjective, and you get to decide what that means. Even if you’re the type of person that trips over air or runs off of athletic fields screaming, take heart. You can keep wheezing up the stairs of life, or you can go on YouTube in the dead of night and let the Fitness Marshall be your guide.