Dare to Dream

Modeling for Fit Magazine

It’s 1983 and aerobics is the hot new fitness craze. Flash Dance star Jennifer Beals has transformed sweatshirts into a sexy fashion statement with strategically placed rips and tears. Women have an alternative to the male dominated gym scene with Jane Fonda’s Workout Video. Leg warmers, shiny leotards and matching headbands are the new chic. And the place to show this off is Move-It Fitness, a large exercise studio at the heart of downtown Los Gatos, just South of the burgeoning Silicon Valley.

Move-It exploded in popularity a few months after opening its doors. With packed classes and a reputation for providing the most challenging workouts in the area, it fast became the place to be. It didn’t hurt business that it also had a reputation for having good-looking instructors.

I was working in a bakery and going to school at West Valley, the local Community College, when I found out about it. I’d make a point to drive by on my way back from my early-morning bakery job just so I could get a look at the shiny-clad women as they filed into class. I envied their glamour and at the same time judged them – thinking to myself,

I’m better than that, I don’t need to follow a fad to feel OK. 

But in fact, I felt crappy about myself. I was gaining weight with every cheesecake I “accidently” smashed, my boyfriend criticized me if I gained weight, and my paycheck was barely enough to cover rent let alone tuition and books. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I was anxious to do something. Anything! Fresh out of high school, I was full of energy and passion but I was also full of tons of self-doubt.

Then one morning, while lying beside my boyfriend, Sven – a gorgeous semi-pro tennis player – we had a conversation that changed everything.

“I took the hardest class last night at that new studio Move-It” he says, rolling over while pulling his arm from under where my head is resting.

“Really?” I asked, trying to sound unimpressed, “Where was this?”

“In Los Gatos, right there on Main Street,” he snaps, “Haven’t you heard of it?”

“Oh, ya, I’ve seen it…what’s the big deal, it’s just a work-out place?” I roll over and go into the bathroom before he has a chance to see my jealousy. I’m English and fair skinned and when I get upset my chest gets red blotches – and there were plenty on my chest. I splash my face with cold water, put on my robe and wrap a towel around my neck to conceal evidence that my feelings are hurt before crawling back into bed.

“You ok?” Sven asks.

“Yup,” holding in an avalanche of interrogatory questions. “So, what’s so great about this new studio anyway?”

Sven scoffs and says in his strong Swedish accent, “You have to be the best to teach there – our tennis team has been going there all summer to build endurance.”

Throwing off my robe and towel I proclaim: “I can do that job!”

With a confused look on his face, Sven says, “What job, what are you talking about?” I say nothing. He pauses for a minute then says, “Are you joking? You work at a bakery…you’re not aerobics instructor material, Robin.” he says while getting out of bed to get dressed.

Taking his response as a challenge, I proclaim, “I’ll prove to you – I can get a job there. And I can do it in one month.”

“You’re on,” he says, giving me a peck on the cheek before leaving.

The Indefatigable Nancy

The next day I take my usual detour to drive by Move-It, only this time, I park and go in.

The studio is buzzing with energy; the advanced 2-hour class is about to begin. It was packed as usual with clusters of women chatting amongst themselves, others sat adjusting their legwarmers or shoes. Then there were the serious athletic types in the front row, some focused on their own pre-class warm-up, others staring at themselves in the mirror with a Ninja Warrior intensity. The music started and with the instructor’s command to reach up with both arms, the class began. Those who were sitting stood up immediately, the athletes in the front row, now focused on the teacher, the woman at the front counter looked up and even passers by outside the studio made there way to the window from the Ferrari Dealership across the street to check out the class. Everyone wide-eyed and admiring at the instructor, who in a single motion, demonstrated her choreographed exercise, encouraged the slower students, pushed the more advanced students and did all this with the charisma of a lead singer of a rock band. Her name was Nancy, and watching her I felt equal parts inspiration and terror.

I slipped out the door, headed for my car and left without looking back.

What had I gotten myself into? Its much more than doing an exercise in front of a class – I have to be star! I’m not a star, I can barely walk into a room full of people without turning red, let alone remember a list of exercises, set to the right music, and inspire a room of people in just the right way at just the right moment.  – I’m not Nancy. I’ll never be Nancy. And I’m definitely not a star…

But a promise is a promise. Especially when pride is on the line. But more than that, a voice inside came alive when I was watching Nancy. What if I could do that?

So the next day, armed only with that what if, I returned to Move-It. I went an hour earlier to avoid the pre-class chaos and in the hopes the owner would be there. Two women were at the front desk, neither of whom I saw the day before.

“Hi, I’m Robin,” I say nervously.

“Hi Robin, is this your first time here?” one of the two asks graciously.

“No, I was here yesterday,” thinking she won’t know that I didn’t actually take the class since she wasn’t here.

“Oh really, which class?” she asks…”by the way, my name is Karen.

Nice to meet you Karen, “Um..the advanced class in the afternoon,” I say, heart pounding.

Hesitating a minute, Karen says, “That’s funny, I didn’t see you. I was in that class yesterday.”

Gulp…I collect my thoughts and before I have time to get nervous blurt, “Well actually I’m here to ask about a teaching position.”

The second women looks up from what she’s doing and interjects, “You, want to work here?” She’s broad-shouldered with penetrating blue eyes that look right through me. She adds, “Did I understand you correctly?”

“Yes, I want to work here.”

Without hesitation the second woman says, “I’m sorry but we don’t need any instructors.”

I don’t remember what I said, only that I felt completely dejected. Walking out the door, Karen said, “But we’d love to have you come back for a class sometime.”

On the way home I had one hand on the steering wheel and the other pinching a roll of fat that had accumulated from sampling one too many cheesecakes at the bakery. It’s true what Sven said – I’ll never get a job there. I’m just not star material.

But a couple of days later, driving by the studio, I see the same two women through the window and in flash of blind optimism, park my car to try again. We have a similar conversation, except that this time when they say that they don’t have a need for instructors, I counter with the question, “But what if one of your star instructors gets sick?”

“We’ve already got instructors who can substitute…but thank you anyway,” was the response.

This time when I returned to my car, I felt a little less dejected. That night I resolved to go back every day until something changed.

Many days later, something did change. Martha, the one with penetrating blue eyes, who by this time I’d learned was one of the two owners, was getting used to me coming by the studio. On this particular day before I said anything, she initiated the conversation. “You seem pretty determined to work here,” she says.

“What gave you that I idea?” I laughed. By this time, my dejection was gone and I felt comfortable and even happy to be there.

“We don’t have a need for an instructor, but we do have an early morning class that is hard to find a substitute for when we need one. Come here this Friday at 10:00am for an audition. Bring your own music and moves and we’ll let you show us what you got,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

“Thank you so much Martha!” I’ll be here!!

I’m so excited on the drive home and can’t wait to dig into my albums and create a class that will show them how good I am. Later, faced with a tall stack of albums I’ve selected with my mission on Friday, I’m filled with anxiety. I go by the studio to get inspired and see what kinds of moves I should do, but instead leave feeling overwhelmed with self-doubt and dread for Friday’s audition. Who am I to think I can be as good as them?

A couple of days pass and the albums I gathered for my audition remain unopened. Instead, I compensate with cheesecake samples brought from work. I even crack open some truffles to drink the liqueur, then refilled them with Grand Marnier.

I’m a mess and dreading Friday’s audition.

Thursday night arrives fast and I have no choice but to choreograph something – anything! I play a few songs, get inspired and come up with some moves. I do this without checking myself in the mirror because to do so would remind me of how stupid I’ve been all week to procrastinate until now.

The next morning I pull out a powder-pink leotard and navy blue tights that are so old they have pilings. I completely forgot about what I’d wear – these are from when I took my last ballet class years ago. No time to go shopping at this point. It’s now or never. I get dressed, go through my music and choreography one more time and head to Move-It. Pulling into the parking lot it occurs to me that I can leave and never come back.

Nancy & I Win the Fit Aerobics Championship

But then the words, what if enter my mind. I park and go in. Martha, her business partner, Karen, and Nancy – the star instructor, are there waiting. I make a beeline for the turntable; pull out my stack of albums. My hands were trembling so hard that it took me several tries to get the needle on the right song – White Wedding, by Billy Idol. I start my choreography focusing on the lyrics,

Hey little sister what have you done
Hey little sister who’s the only one
Hey little sister who’s your superman
Hey little sister who’s the one you want
Hey little sister shot gun!

Billy Idols voice blaring with rebel energy boosts my confidence. I look at myself – pink and navy blue as I am – and, helped by the lyrics, I own it.

It’s a nice day to start again
It’s a nice day for a white wedding
It’s a nice day to start again…

I get to the last song and look up at my audience of three – who, to my shock, are beaming and nodding with approval.

“Good work, Robin. You’ve got the job! Can you start next Tuesday?” Martha asks. “We need a substitute for the 6:30 am class?”

I take the job and drop the boyfriend.

Move-It Instructors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Dancing in Cuba Taught Me About Listening

The following post recounts an experience I had during my first of many trips to Cuba from 1999 – 2012.
Dancing Man in Havana“Quiero una cerveza,” I tell the bartender

“Crystal o Bucanero?” he asks.

The two main beers of Cuba, one on the lighter side, the other, slightly more dark. Dame una Crystal,” I say with the pleasure that comes from being able to make a choice uncomplicated by having too many options.

Pouring the beer into a half-chilled glass, I suck it down. It’s a hot day in Havana. Just then an older gentleman approaches from a nearby table. Quieres bailar?” he asks with subdued confidence.

“Gracias, pero no hay musica,” I tell him, looking around the bar then back at him for agreement.

“No importa. Venga,” the gentleman replies, his right arm reaching out towards me.

Josef is a tall slender man, who looks part African and part Asian. He has strong lines on either side of his mouth that deepen when he grins revealing yellow-stained front teeth rimmed with gold. Despite this and the slight reek of cigar smoke, he’s enchanting. “Bueno,” I nod in acceptance.

He takes my hand and escorts me to a spot several feet from the bar then gestures for me to stand beside him. “Mirame, mira mis pies” Josef says, pointing both fingers at my eyes, then back to his feet. Standing with his feet ten inches apart, he leans forward just enough for his arms to dangle free before him. He takes one step to his right then brings his foot back to its original position. Then he takes one step to his left and brings it back.

This is easy – I got this, I think. “Four steps…that’s it?” I say.

I bend my knees and step right, then back to center, left, then back to center, just like he showed me. After a few more attempts, I speed up, making me believe that I’m doing well. Turning back to Josef, in anticipation of his praise, his expression tells me otherwise. Scratching the back of his head with a perplexed look on his face, he taps his chest and tells me I have to listen to the rhythm from inside. Marking each step slowly, he claps out the rhythm, “Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco; Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco.”

I recognize it immediately from my Cuban dance class. It’s a rhythm of the clave – two smooth wooden sticks that when played together provide the foundational pattern for Afro-Cuban music.

Closing my eyes, I try to focus on his voice and the rhythm. Clap, clap, (pause) clap-clap- clap. How am I supposed to keep my belly relaxed and my knees bent at the same time? And my feet, it’s as if they have their own brain. (Now I know how men feel about that other body part of theirs.) This should be easy for me, but it’s not. It feels foreign. And what’s up with this should in my mind? No doubt it’s from my identity as a dancer. A dancer with twenty years of experience! But who cares about all that experience if in this moment, I can’t even follow a simple step.

I wish I could do the step the way Joseph’s doing it – on the beat and with total commitment.

Focus. Relax. Listen. I tell myself. Keep it simple. Breath. Move from the breath in sync with the rhythm. That’s the only task.

I look over at Josef, who looks back at me, bending his knees even more, as if to challenge me to do the same.

I focus on my feet; right, then back to the original position, then left, and then back to center. Breath, focus, sink into the rhythm. For a moment my hips, torso and shoulders seem to move in concert and with the least amount of effort.

Lowering myself even closer to the floor to match Josef, my thighs begin to hurt and my legs shake. I look down, lose focus and almost fall over myself. Josef’s elegant and precise movements are beyond reach for now. Our wordless dialogue continues for a moment before I have to stop and rest. Catching my breath, I ask him, “Que hace a un buen bailador?

With a glint of mischief in his eyes, he says, “Tienes que escuchar a Dios,”

 

Note: While the man in this photo is not the actual Josef I danced with (unfortunately, I took no photo), this gentlemen exudes Josef’s joy and warmth.

Forts: Nature Tells Us How to Build

I grew up in Los Gatos, a small town just South of what’s now Silicon Valley. Our one story house at the end of Jones Road was perfect for my brother and I because it was located on a quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by nature. There was a wild, partially contained hundred-acre park that began where the street ended. Here, we could hike for hours, and discover new things like black widow spiders, gopher snakes and blue belly lizards.

Our very own back yard was a much smaller version of this natural wonderland, with ample trees and bushes surrounding a grass-covered hill, perfect for tobogganing down in the summers, after Dad cut down the dry stalks.

By the time I was eight my brother and I had built a fort in and around almost every tree and bush in our backyDSC_7580.JPGard, including he towering Eucalyptus, so high it swayed with the weight of our little bodies, the Acacia, with its buxom branches strong enough to support hours of intense play, and the Manzanita tree with it’s bush-like shape and super smooth branches that poked in every direction.

Each one offered a different challenge to overcome and with it, a unique opportunity to experience something new. We didn’t know, for example, that the Acacia tree was perfect for climbing and building on until we reached across its gigantic trunk to grasp a protruding knot in exactly the location we needed it to be to be able to scale its width. The fort we built within its branches ended up being the most stable of all the forts we built, partly due to our skill, but just as much a result of what the tree gave us – super climbable trunks and a strong girth upon which we could position wood planks for our fort’s floor.

We learned that to build a fort – it was as much about what we wanted to create as it was what the tree wanted to give. It was a relationship of sorts, unique not only to its nature, but to our interaction with it’s nature.

I gained an understanding of our back yard by experiencing it first hand. The only exception to this for both my brother and I was the rambling Blackberry hedge that lined the border between our house and our neighbors’.

There was something about this hedge that was both intriguing and a bit scary. It gave us fruit and the young leaves were a beautiful, translucent green. But if you didn’t position your hand in just the right way and time your selection of the berry you wanted in sync with its readiness to be picked, then chances were high you’d be stuck with a thorn or get one of those nasty little cuts you can’t see, but that hurts every time you use your hand.

None of this changed the fact that we didn’t know what was deep inside its thicket. We could conjecture that it was just layer upon layer of prickly vegetation, and therefore, inhospitable, but we hadn’t actually experienced it. And this fact made the notion of building a fort there, irresistible.

So one Saturday morning, after breakfast and chores, John and I focused our minds on the serious work of planning our fort in the Blackberry hedge. We brought every tool we had in our combined arsenal, driven by a single question – what if you could make a fort inside this bush?

My brother, who was especially skilled at architecting a vision, knew intuitively to start cutting around the area with the visibly largest branches. I followed behind, using dad’s thick cowhide gloves to remove broken limbs in John’s path. Two hours in and we’d made a hole deep enough to almost completely obscure my brother’s frame from mom’s viewpoint in the kitchen.

It wasn’t until we sat down to lunch that I noticed scratches on both of us, head-to-toe. Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we resolved that if we wanted to reach our goal, we’d have to go deeper, and if we wanted to go deeper, we’d have to dig smarter.

So right after lunch, back at the hedge (now with a noticeable gape, that we dubbed the front door, over lunch), we bore full gear, complete with hiking boots, overalls, long sleeved shirts and ski masks.

By days end, we reached our goal – an area big enough to allow us to sit side by side and ponder our next fort. We created instant walls by draping old blankets on the interior sides. Even so, we couldn’t lean back like we could on the Acacia tree.

Still, it was dark inside and there was a feeling of being protected from the world outside. And this was something we didn’t know before we started.