It’d been a good ten years since someone told me to “grapevine left.” In fact, the last time I was barked at to do a Triple Knee Repeater or a Round The World, the only woman in America who had a headset mic was Madonna. I don’t exercise often and when I do, I try not to sweat too much, so recently, at the gym, when I saw on the Group Fitness Schedule that Tina’s Basic Step class was “suitable for all levels,” I peeked in. Just about everyone in there was 10-20 pounds overweight. There were no fancy racer back tanks or chafe-free LuLu Lemon pants. While I was sizing up the class, Tina herself waved me in and the next thing I knew, I was over at the equipment wall deciding how many risers to put under my step.
Now—as the honest among us will admit—there is a hierarchy to women’s exercise classes.
The truly fit (and centered) do yoga, Chi Gung, pilates or The Dailey Method. These women are lean and muscular and flexible, and I like to think they were born this way. They fancy green tea, which they seep in reusable metal strainers, and can confidently pronounce their teachers names: Tuam, Karuna, Shotoa. Many of them are extremely attractive and consider a touch of Burt’s Bees on their lips to be fully made up. They know not the cottage cheese dimple.
Next are the spinners. Atop their stationery cycles, they generally talk and walk louder and faster than the wispy, barefoot yoga-types. The spin class girls are competitive and bring lots of towels to class. They can tell you their heart rate at any moment. They read magazines and websites about fitness, Women’s Health or something, while guzzling coconut water and doing Kegels. If they’re running late and all the bikes are spoken for, they’ll slip into the back of a Body Sculpt class where they fearlessly take on the advanced moves and the extra sets.
When the instructor offers a low impact option, they tune out, listening instead to the adrenaline flooding their systems.
At my old gym, the Berkeley YMCA, there is yet a third class of exercisers: the mind/body folks. Think Feldenkrais, Aikido, Karate, which they pronounce Ka-ra-tay. These people will probably save the world and at the very least, never yell at their kids, and for these reasons, are beyond my reproach.
Then, there are the people, often middle aged, who just love to move. I have a soft spot for this merry bunch. They do Merengue on Mondays, World Hip Hop on Tuesdays, Belly Dance Basics on Wednesdays, Salsa Fusion on Thursdays and then wind up the week with some TransDance, which integrates tribal motion, freestyle jamming and moving meditation. A woman named Tranquilla teaches this class. She lights a candle and rings a bell to start class. People hug her on the way out.
Later, after time marches all over your back and drips cement in your joints, there is low impact senior aerobics (using metal folding chairs) and water aerobics with aqua barbells and something “New!” called The Noodle Workout. From the speakers, Perry Como peppered with the odd Liza Minelli number. Afterwards, participants peel off their webbed gloves, dry off their hands and head over to an afternoon of oversized origami.
Then there’s me, in Tina’s Basic Step, secretly laughing at my classmates—their funny pumpkin butts and awkward clapping, their outdated ankle socks and leopard-print scrunchies.
I yawned through the warm up, Basic Right, Basic Left, and held my own during the NOLA-night-club version of Justin Timberlake’s Sexy Back, but three songs into things, I started to feel woozy. A little nauseous. By the time we got to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” my vision was blurred, sweat stinging my eyes. Pumpkin Butt next to me was fine, even thriving—this was her song! Panther Scrunchie was also high on endorphins—she loved the Charleston/T-Step/Hamstring Curl combo. But me? I was dragging to the point of being at high risk for injury. Was I going to have to stop? Take out my risers? I drank some water, eliminated any extraneous motion (like arm-pumping and head holding-up) and, after twenty humiliating minutes, I heard the sweet tones of Enya. It was over.
But I left knowing that indeed it was time to stop. Stop constantly, instinctively, sizing up other women (pun on sizing intentional), looking for some continuum to place myself on, maybe step down off the risers I seemed to be perched on. Fact is, we’re all doing our damnedest to keep it together and the last thing any one of us needs is the cold, smug eye of judgment.
Kelly Corrigan is the author of three New York Times bestsellers about family life, most recently Glitter and Glue.