The 52/52 Project: Detours off the Cul-de-sac


Bellying Up to the Dance Barre

Here’s the thing about belly dancing: You seldom look as sexy as you hoped.

When I chose belly dancing classes as the first of my fifty-two new experiences in the year I would turn fifty-two, I knew looking sexy was a long shot. I figured the most I might pull off was getting a bit of exercise, enduring minimal humiliation, and walking away without any body parts permanently out of whack.

I seemed to have all the physical makings for a belly dancer. A well-meaning older girl informed me, when I was thirteen, that my big hips would come in handy for birthing babies, as if this were something every teenage girl dreams of hearing. The joke was on both of us years later, when I ended up with two C-sections.

And, besides the hips, Lord knows I have a belly. But the word “belly” proved to be far less important than the word “dancing.” And “dancing” should have raised a three-mile-high red flag. The last structured dancing lesson I’d taken was a ballet class in the second grade. The song my seven-year-old self practiced for weeks for our final recital was “I Can Learn to Do Ballet.” The problem was: I couldn’t. My parents never once mentioned re-enrolling me. I assumed the classes were too expensive.

Still, forty-five minutes into my first belly dancing lesson, my foremost thought was, “Holy Mother of God, please don’t let this end in a public recital.”

The instructor, a full-sized woman my age or a few years older, seemed to sense my trepidation. She tossed out a trickle of encouraging remarks: “Age, shape, and size don’t matter here. Belly dancing is for women who want to celebrate life.” She also was fond of telling us, “Belly dancing is different from that other form of entertainment not taught here. We are ladies, not hussies.” And my favorite: “I’ve only had you for an hour. I don’t want to hear anyone say, ‘I can’t do this.’ You can only say, ‘I can’t do this yet.’”

During the first hour-long lesson, I figure I muttered, “I can’t do this yet,” approximately five times. Or maybe fifty.

I mastered the hip thrust in the very first class. It was a surprising feat, considering my romantic life had provided no opportunity for that particular move in a long while. But the stepping and the swiveling and the pivoting? And accomplishing them all in a prescribed order? This appeared to require not just coordination but also some sort of mathematical equation: “Step, touch—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. And back—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.” Blah-blah-blah. If I couldn’t remember it three seconds after hearing the instructions, you can be damn sure I can’t remember it now.

As I do recall, however, it involved much pivoting and swiveling in between. The swiveling was particularly perplexing, much like hula hooping, back in the seventies. (If you think the Chucky doll is the toy from hell, you haven’t tried to use a hula hoop.) My ample hips were useless tools when it came to swiveling. Trying simultaneously to memorize stepping and pivoting proved to be equally unsuccessful.

I wanted to believe I was faking my way through—at least keeping up with the rest of the first-timers. I glanced over at my friend Mary, who’d agreed the previous weekend while she was finishing off a bottle of wine, to join me in this escapade. But I noticed as she was pivoting left, I was stepping right. Moments later, the instructor asked a finely tuned returning student to move down the dance line—so “others” could watch her and try to follow along. She was placed directly in front of me. I shrugged. Clearly a coincidence.

As we continued to swivel and step, I frowned. Each of us had chosen a brightly colored scarf, adorned with gold-colored coins, to wear around our hips. The dangling coins from my classmates’ hips jingled together as the women moved. My hip scarf remained noticeably silent. It struck me that perhaps my scarf clung too tightly to my ample hips and therefore had no room to sway. Reflecting back, I’m pretty sure I was simply the victim of defective coins.

Yet I wasn’t nearly as concerned about the lack of clanking coins as I was about the falling ones. Several coins from Mary’s scarf kept dropping off. She mentioned this to our instructor, who reassured us not to worry about it. Not to worry? As everyone else was following along with the dance routine, I kept eying the floor. Each time we enjoyed a momentary break before segueing into a new sequence, I frantically scooped up every stray coin from the floor around me. Was no one else consumed with the fear of slipping on one of these shiny devil’s toys? How could I ever manage a hip thrust with a broken hip?

I should mention I’ve endured a lifetime of accidents caused by a handful of physical and athletic pursuits. During my workplace softball league in 1982, my future husband suggested I play catcher. The romance was still young, so I was eager to please. I crouched down, pounded my mitt as I’d seen professional ballplayers do, and awaited the pitch. I believe I still had my fist in my mitt when the ball passed the plate. Which is why the ball slammed straight into my face. I’d like to say I crashed to the ground with the ball securely in hand. In reality, it knocked me flat and smashed my glasses. I was sore and sightless, but I was tough. Besides, my boyfriend/coach informed we didn’t have any spare players. I continued playing the remainder of the game, squinting in the outfield, where my near-blindness had little opportunity to prove me any worse a player than I already was.

My coordination and athletic prowess never did kick in. My rollerblading incident of 1999 ended with a CT scan in the ER, and during my second—and last—attempt at skiing, I fell off the chairlift.

Yet somehow I managed to make it physical-crisis-free through my first belly-dancing class. And through a second one, too.

Then my belly dancing career simply came to an end. When the time for the third class rolled around, I decided it wasn’t worth investing more of my time or money. I had other seeds to sow. Other crosses to bear. Other clichés to write.

My short-lived belly-dancing career was not without its positives, though. The instructor was entertaining and inspiring, and some of my classmates appeared to be fun people, too. (I figured they’d be even more fun over a couple of pitchers of margaritas. Sadly, only bottled water was available for purchase.) That hip thrust could come in handy, if I ever got lucky again. And except for my nightly hot flashes, I hadn’t sweated so much in years.

The point was, I’d tried something new. I’d ventured outside my comfort zone. I’d given it a shot, and that was the idea behind this whole project. Besides, I’d learned I was, indeed, a lady and not a hussy. I felt not a bit of shame in moving on.





I Will Survive

When I compiled my first draft list of fifty-two new experiences, one seemed a long shot: to audition for a game show or movie.

Who’d have guessed that, while I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed late one night, I’d spy an announcement about an open cast-call for the TV show Survivor? Auditions were being held two days later at Put-in-Bay, a tiny but wild resort town on a Lake Erie island just a hop and a skip away.

Cancelling all plans for the day (including an important work meeting), I jumped in the car and then took the ferry to the island. Because when serendipity comes calling, people, you damn well better open the door.

While I should have been worrying about losing my job, I instead agonized over what to wear to my audition. I finally decided on a black T-shirt and black capri-length running pants. Surely this would make me appear thinner, and more athletic, than I truly was. Athletic wear, I soon discovered, was a fashion faux pas. The bad news was that I appeared to be the only auditioning female not baring her cleavage and shapely, bronzed legs in a bikini or skimpy sun dress. The other bad news: I was also among the oldest—and most full-figured—women there. The good news, however, was that my pasty white cankles were as much of my skin show as the producers probably cared to see.

Since my physical appearance was a failure, I’d have to rely on my speech. The online announcement I’d read had explained we’d have a one-minute on-camera screening to sell ourselves to the producers. With little time for prep, I wrote up talking points that morning and committed them to memory—surprisingly well for my middle-age brain—while I made the one-hour drive to the ferry.

Anyone familiar with Put-in-Bay, “the Key West of the Midwest,” won’t be surprised to know 98 percent of the people there at 3 PM were fully stewed. I went into the audition stone-cold sober. Brave or just stupid? Either way, I figured I deserved extra points.

My confidence was boosted by a couple of young women who became my BFFs during the two-hour wait in line. Oh yes, you can bet we formed our alliances early. I knew that when we eventually arrived for the show’s actual production (as I assumed we inevitably would), I’d have a tough time backstabbing my new best friends, Donna and Julieann. But I’d do it, because I’m a gamer.

I felt like I nailed my one-minute audition. I remembered most of my last-minute script. Donna assured me I did great. She later forwarded me an action shot she captured, mid-audition. And by “action,” I mean the only moment in which I wasn’t standing awkwardly with both hands clenched in fists by my side. Is it possible they award extra credit for stiffest pose? Perhaps to make up for that I should have forwarded them a much more animated photo from my bug-eating episode, a 52/52 experience I endured the following week. Surely the experience of eating a worm and a cricket makes me more qualified than a young hot bod in a bikini.

I can only hope the Survivor producers are looking for a middle-aged, square-shaped woman who’s simply ready to change her life. If I’m called back, you can be sure I will kick even my closest alliance’s ass. I will survive. But if I never hear from the producers again—likely because they’ve misplaced my phone number—I still walked away that day feeling like a contender.

And then I had a drink. Or three. Because when you’re stuck on an island, at a place like Put-in-Bay, you must do what it takes to survive.


Of Bunnies and Batteries

Sex ed in the seventies proved to be an enlightening experience, especially at a Catholic grade school. I wandered away from that single lesson feeling fairly clear about the basics, but I spent many subsequent nights pondering where exactly my “pistil” was hidden and how a male “stamen” might get there to fertilize it. Thankfully, the nun teaching the class assured us girls we wouldn’t have to worry about that until our wedding night. Those nuns were mighty strict, but they had a hell of a sense of humor.

Most people I knew received their real sex education in hushed circles on the school playground or years later in parked cars. There, on darkened streets, many lingering questions were finally answered. These excursions were often accompanied by questions of their own though, such as “The seatbelt is digging into my hip. Can you move a bit to the side?” And, “Oh, crap, did that just break?”

Catholic sex education aside, I enjoyed a normal “romantic” life. Somehow, though, I made it to nearly fifty-two before ever stepping foot in an adult bookstore. My recent mission was not only to visit such an establishment but to engage fully in the experience. As the saying goes, “You’re never too old to learn something new.” Aside from any possible embarrassment, my biggest fear was that the information as coming too late in the game to put to good use.

I wandered the store for several minutes, soaking up the sights. The photos on the packaging required little imagination. Still, this was a serious research project. I needed to know more. Fortunately, the twenty-something androgynous store clerk was chatty, full of knowledge, and eager to teach. He seemed well-versed—either by training or by design—in the assortment of personal entertainment for both genders. My eyes were opened through the longest, most graphic conversation I have ever had with a complete stranger. Or anyone.

“So, what are your best-selling items for women?” I asked.

He promptly led me to the electric device aisle, where he pointed out an impressive variety of shapes and sizes. He noted the advantages of each and then stood there, silently, apparently awaiting my choice.

I finally nodded and pointed at one. “Well, this one looks nice.”

We moved on to the men’s toy aisle.

Ladies: If the dating pool seems shallower these days, it’s likely because we’ve been rendered obsolete. I’d anticipated seeing a number of devices for the most traditional of activities. What I didn’t imagine were the other choices. As my new clerk friend explained the most popular item, something that resembled a flashlight—but with pink, pursed lips—a customer chimed in from the next aisle: “Yeah, those are great! I have two of those.”

Huh. I guess variety is the spice of life—even when it comes to artificial body parts.

My only remaining questions when I left were: Will my receipts for a candy-coated bra and a peepshow be sufficient enough for me to write this off as “writing-related research” on my taxes? And will I be able to look my accountant in the eye when I hand them over?

Regardless, now that I am a semi-professional adult bookstore shopper, I’m pleased to share what I learned in my crash course: Rabbits, butterflies, elephants, dolphins, beavers, and hummingbirds apparently are not just characters in a Disney cartoon. The top-of-the-line female sex toys come with rechargeable batteries and a remote control and are guaranteed to last ten years. One of them even does all the work for you. The clerk called it “a nice lazy little toy.” Apparently you just sit back, watch it do its thing, and it brings you pleasure. Much like a Slinky, I guess. If you’re particularly choosy, be sure to look for the toys marked “Pleasantly Scented.” And, if you’re the patriotic sort, you’ll be glad to know you can find many bearing the proud label, “Made in America!”

Just like McDonald’s, where the drive-through cashier asks if you’d like fries with your burger, adult bookstore clerks are trained to be equally helpful. As they’re ringing up your order, they will ask if you’d like batteries or some lube with it. I declined. Sadly, you cannot return an item, even if you discover it’s the wrong size.

Finally, the outdoor sign boasting tweny-five-cent videos has likely not been changed in decades. A peep show will now cost you a minimum of five dollars, ten if you’re paying by credit card. And be forewarned: If you get creeped out by the cut-out hole in the adjoining walls of each booth, suspect the ominous movement in the next booth is growing closer, and decide to make a quick exit, you will not get your money back. But rest assured you won’t miss much if you leave the movie prematurely; I’m pretty certain every one of them has a happy ending.


Rumpus original art by Sara Sisun.

Sherry Stanfa-Stanley writes fiction, humor, and human-interest stories. Her work most recently appeared in the anthology Fifty Shades of Funny: Hook-Ups, Break-Ups and CrackUps, and she is a recipient of a Midwest Writers Workshop Fellowship. Sherry is currently chronicling her year of fifty-two exciting, enlightening, and often humiliating new life experiences. Follow along at The 52/52 Project and More from this author →