This December, I read The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage by Kelly McGonigal. I had received an advanced copy of the book because McGonigal had quoted my essay on the deadlift in “Chapter Five: Overcoming Obstacles.” (Seeing my name is this book is very exciting!) I have written about another of McGonigal’s books, The Upside of Stress, on this blog, and I am a fan of her work. She is a skillful storyteller and science writer, which means that she can demystify and normalize those things that often make us feel weird or different by reminding us they actually just part of the human condition. Without a doubt, her writing inspires people to live more fully — and, as her new book title suggests, joyfully.
When I learned there would be a ticketed book party here in New York City, I immediately knew that I had to attend. “The Joy of Movement Book Launch and Workout” was billed as part taping of a podcast, part movement class, and part dance party. It was being hosted at the JCC which I had never been to, but heard great things about. On the surface, how the event was going to work made little sense, but having read the book, this conglomeration thematically made sense. McGonigal dedicated her book “to all the movement instructors who have inspired me and to all those who have moved with me in classes over the years, thank you for sharing the joy.” Yes, she was going to talk about her book but her book is about things like the endorphin rush, collective joy, and we-agency, induced by synchrony among a group that moves together. Why just talk about it when we can experience it?
However, by the time the event rolled around, my initial excitement had dimmed significantly. A part of me was likely dreading it all along, and that part had gotten louder. I was going to an event that I did not quite understand; it was going to be social in nature; and I was going alone. My “new kid” nerves were getting the best of me.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good dance party, and clearly I like movement. But I have never been comfortable dancing alone on a public dance floor. Never. I can only dance “like nobody is watching” if (a) nobody is watching, or (b) at least one person who knows me is watching. At this dance party, neither of these would be true. So when I arrived at the Marlene Meyerson JCC on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was almost shaking with all the uncertainties that took me out of my comfort zone.
When I arrived, I was sent downstairs to the auditorium. I waited for the elevator with a small crowd of women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies all in clothes made to move topped with sensible parkas and warm colorful hats. There was not a familiar face in the group, and yet they were all familiar. This socially engaged and active older woman is a type of New Yorker I know well, live next door to, and wait in line with at the supermarket. For all I know, I went to high school with their children — most of my classmates grew up on the Upper West Side. We shuffled out of the elevator and then formed a small line at a table outside of the auditorium doors, where we were warmly greeted by JCC staff and received a signed copy of The Joy of Movement.
I walked into the auditorium and took in the scene with an intention. I was orienting to feel a little more grounded. My nerves were really getting to me despite any familiarity I may have felt among the crowd. At the front of the room, there was a riser set up for the podcast/talk — two armchairs and a small coffee table were set up in fireside chat style. Each chair had sequin covered fabric draped over it, and the book of the night was perched upright on the coffee table, its cover equally sparkly and pink and the epitome of joyful. To the right of the stage was a DJ spinning very danceable pop songs; I would learn this was Petra Kolber, a motivational speaker and the author of The Perfection Detox. In front of the riser was the dance floor — which made me a little nervous. I grimaced. “What did I get myself into,” I thought to myself.
The rest of the room was dotted with small tables with three to four seats at each, and a snack table in the back featured salt-free, oil-free, sugar-free, vegan snacks. The food gave me pause. “Wow, food free from seemingly everything but dates,” I thought to myself looking at their labels which listed their ingredients. I was skeptical about a table of sweets so dependent on dates, doubting that they would taste good, but later in the evening, when hunger hit, I tried each one and they were all actually quite delicious.
It was fifteen minutes before the program was supposed to begin. Being early is a blessing and a curse. I had a greater selection of seats but I also had time to stew in my anxiety. I selected a seat at an empty three-top off to the side. I silently hoped some outgoing soul, or a fellow solo-reader like me, would introduce themselves and sit next to me, but so far all I saw was small groups of folks greeting each other with hugs and cheek-kisses. But as more people arrived, the crowd became increasingly diverse. I was no longer the youngest person in the room, and quite a few men arrived; soon the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of life filled the space.
I tried very hard to walk the fine line between compassionate with myself for feeling like “the new kid,” and not getting swept up in that narrative of being “the new kid.” It is important to acknowledge our feelings, even old ones, but that is different from letting them run the show. I might feel like the new kid in seventh grade with frizzy hair and uncool clothes but I am a forty-one-year-old woman with a strong sense of pride in her personal style! After what felt like hours, one of my elevator-mates, Lisa, sat with me. I was thankful. Lisa, was older than me but I have no idea how old she is. She was draped in colorful knits and was excited for the program. She had a youthful energy and is a fan of Caroline Kohles the Nia instructor who was billed as leading the movement practice, and the JCC. Nia, a movement modality that finds a sweet spot between choreographed and free form combines dance, martial arts, and mindfulness.
The formal event commenced twenty minutes later than scheduled and we started with some guided movement in our seats. Kohles led us through an energizing-yet-seated movement routine that I assumed came from Nia, while Petra continued to play pop songs at her booth. Next we were introduced to author and podcast host Jenny Blake. Finally, Kolber played Madonna’s “Get Into The Groove” and Kelly McGonigal came out and took her bedazzled seat. I let out a huge sigh. The truth was, that was what I was there for.
Throughout the 45-minute talk, I took copious notes, smiled, and nodded “yes” — all things I tend to do when I get excited. Kelly spoke about “the hope molecule,” how to find your power song, and how the workout environment is a space where one can be held differently than with close friends and family. And she ended by reading the following passage from the end of the book:
There is no training formula you have to follow. There is no one path or perscription except to follow your own joy. If you are looking for a guideline, it’s this: Move. Any kind, any amount, and any way that makes you happy. Move whatever parts of your body still move, with gratitude. Move by yourself, and in community. Move in your home. Move outdoors. Move to music or in silence. Set goals that are personally meaningful. Take baby steps, then conquer the big stretch. Seek out new experiences and explore new identities. Pay attention to how activities make you feel and how they change you. Listen to your body. Give yourself permission to do what feels good. Revel in metaphor and meaning. Look for places, people, and communities that inspire you and make you feel welcomed. Keep following the thread of joy as long as you can.
And then we did some of those things. The roomful of strangers got up to dance, and I stayed and danced with them. I am glad I did but it wasn’t easy. I love the idea of moving in community and Nia, was a great gateway into dancing with a room full of strangers. But I find it very hard to feel connected to a community. I suppose that is due in part to past trauma, but also due to my personality. I love people, but I am deeply introverted. I made the following notes in my journal after the event:
During the Nia portion I vacillated sharply between being shy and feeling isolated, and feeling connected. And when I was invited to connect with another I would feel fear and excitement. When I was invited to connect with the room I would almost cry. I think I have spent a long time moving in one way in a small space. Seldom are we invited to connect with each other in our own self care practices. We need more community care.
At the end of the session McGonigal let us know that the choreography we used blended movements that have been found by anthropologists to build connections as written about in The Joy of Movement. It worked. But I was a little overwhelmed. And by the end I was smiling but also a little on edge. I scurried off the dance floor, collected my books, and headed to line up to have McGonigal personalize my books. Although we had some nice exchanges via email and Instagram, we had never met. But by the time I met her, I had very little to say as I had spent my social capital for the day making small talk and dancing with a roomful of strangers. I introduced myself, and she was very warm and welcoming. “I knew you looked familiar!” she said. But understandably, she kept one eye on the party ensuing on the dance floor. That’s how I am at my own parties. I want to dance with my people. And I really believe her that nothing brings her joy like group movement to great tunes. That authentic love and awe for connection is found throughout her book.
When we are living with trauma, connection is simultaneously what we need to heal and hard to make. Connection is why I write and why I read. It is why I train at a barbell club in another borough at inconvenient times. But trying new ways to connect is part of my own practice right now. I am ready to work on compassionately and gently undoing the fear I have around putting myself out there in an attempt to try to connect with others in new and exciting ways, even if that means dancing like nobody’s watching even when someone is undoubtedly is.