My Zumba instructor is excited because Halloween falls on one of our class days, and even though this is more than a month away, she tells us to “Get your costumes ready, ladies!” and goes on to gush about every costume she’s ever worn in the who-knows-how-many years she has been teaching Zumba. She is, as she explained to my friend and me, “communicative”, which means, as far as I can tell, that a large quantity of words come out of her mouth, which do not necessarily relate to each other. This verbal output confuses, rather than informs me, all the more so because I keep trying to make sense of it, to grab hold of some thread of meaning and follow it.
My participation in the actual class is much the same. Generally, by the time I figure out a movement she is making with her arms or her feet, she has moved on through several others. At first these movements of hers all seemed quite random, if spirited. She does nothing halfway. By the third class, I began to sense a pattern to her movements, although I could only glimpse it fleetingly. I counted that as progress.
I must have some kind of something with this dance thing because the laws of probability would indicate that I would be moving the correct foot about 50% of the time, there being only two possible feet involved (although damned if I could tell you which one was left or right, but that’s another matter). But no, I am wrong every single time. Oddly, I see this as a hopeful sign. I must be capturing something, if I could only just reverse it or turn it inside out.
The truth is that I can perceive grace even if I cannot attain it. I see it in my friend and in some others and it draws me forward. This too, I see as hopeful. It is not that I am blind to it, this thing that eludes me, although perhaps it would be easier if I were.
I keep to the back of the class to hide my ineptitude; I have, at least, some pride and dignity to maintain. I avoid the mirrors on the walls. My friend tells me to follow the music and stop concentrating so much on what the instructor is doing, which, I will admit, is much more fun, but quickly results in my losing any semblance of what is going on quite completely. My goal at this point is to be moving more or less in the same direction as the other participants so as not to attract attention.
It is humbling to attempt to learn something I am so horribly bad at. Humbling, but healthy. In my faltering movements, I echo my students who, when they try to write, sense that there is more they can do with words. They too, have fleeting moments when they get out of their own way and something beautiful comes out of them which they can’t quite believe they have written. But like me in Zumba class, most of the time, they struggle along, trying to remember all the rules they have been taught, concentrating on how many paragraphs they are supposed to have, whether or not they can use “I” and desperately sprinkling commas wherever it strikes them because they know commas belong there somewhere. And then sometimes the writing simply gets away from them, and they are just saying what they really feel, the words rushing out so fast they can hardly contain them, losing sense of paragraphs, sentences, punctuation. It is all part of the process. I can see that, even when they can’t.
Maybe if I keep at this, I will experience what my students do when they tell me they are proud of what they have written, as if they can’t quite believe it, when I see that they have taken risks with words, when they have written about the things that matter most to them, when they write about what has made them who they are, and even if what they have written has fallen short of some perfect ideal, it leans towards integrity. Because each of them inclines towards the truth that is theirs to speak, sometimes in spite of themselves.
So that’s why I keep going back to Zumba class, because I feel it too, that longing to reach beyond my actual self, the sense that there is more to me than what I currently know. And as I try to move to the music that enters me, I feel my own body, the push of my muscles, the blood coursing through my veins, the sweat that stains the neckline of my shirt, the air that moves in and out of my lungs, and the steady beating of my heart. And then my ineptitude is only something to pass through along the way; it is the reaching for transcendence, the movement towards beauty that matters. And I smile through all my awkwardness, because that reaching, that intention, that struggle, is more than enough, is everything.
Meg J. Petersen is a writer, teacher of writing, and the director of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire. She has twice been awarded Fulbright Scholar Grants to work with teachers in the Dominican Republic on the teaching of writing, where she has consulted in the formation of the Proyecto de Escritura Nacional. Twitter: @megjoanna.