The studio is tucked far to the rear of a building I wouldn’t want to enter after dark. The light is low—a kindness, though surely meant for mood. The room is mirrored, the walls red, and the ceiling purple. The honey-colored floor is bare, and the silver poles gleam. “Positions, everyone,” the teacher says, and we line up, warm up, and listen to the instruction for the newest step. All around me lithe bodies swan, ballerinas twirl, and these oh-so-beautiful women rise and fall as if with no bones. There are five of us and I am the ungainly ugly duckling—a sixty-three-year-old woman in a pole dancing class. I don’t have those long willowy legs I observe in the others, the limber back, the fluid hips, or the neck that sweeps, curves, and lifts.
I don’t belong, but I don’t care. It’s the first dance studio I have ever had the courage to enter—ambition long deferred. There was no turning back now. I don’t have a better reason to be here than I’ve always wanted to dance, to be a dancer. Beautiful people dance. Graceful, elegant, self-possessed people dance. Confident, poised people dance, the kind of woman who can move through a room purposefully, chin lifted, eyes straight ahead, a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. If not now, when? This question can lead to great things or terrific foolishness. At the start of this quest, I considered my options.
Salsa, maybe, but it turned out that I didn’t have the shoes, as I couldn’t fit into any with the bumps and lumps in my toes. As for ballroom, I lacked a willing partner. Tango is far too complicated, too steamy, and a lover is required, not just a partner. Hip-hop is too noisy, and jazz is far too incoherent for this uptight, show-me-the-rules girl.
There are so many reasons to give up on the idea, but my time on earth is dripping away, like water held in a tightly clenched fist. If not now, when, for God’s sake? I made a decision.
“Pole dancing?” my girlfriends ask in disbelief. It was a ridiculous idea, of course, a good story over drinks, but here at last was a form that seemed to fit. I could be barefoot. I could dance without a partner. I found a teacher—just one in my whole town. It was well out of my comfort zone, which I hoped would have the jolting effect of cutting through the same old, same old of the everyday, waking me to the richness of being alive. It felt adventuresome, ambitious, and exhilarating. I signed up for an introductory six-pack of lessons.
On the first day, I entered the studio hesitatingly, shoulders hunched, as if humiliation was sure to follow. I told the teacher that not one of my friends believed I was in her class, that most are laughing too hard to even speak. She threw her muscular young arm around me and said, “Now, don’t you listen to them,” and I believed her.
I tell myself that with practice I will improve, that my legs will fly up and over like the fan they are supposed to resemble.
The teacher says “Six, seven, eight and step, step, step, and fly,” and I hold to the notion that one day it will happen just as she instructs.
I tell myself that my “muffin top” belly, confirmed in every mirror in the room, doesn’t matter, that any day now, I’ll lose the weight.
I tell myself it’s a small thing I’m doing just being here, a thing just for me, and that when I die, I will know I have lived.
The teacher says, “Point those toes,” and I pretend that bunions, bursitis, and arthritis don’t matter.
I tell myself to focus if I am to have a prayer of stringing these steps together, to the beat, to the music, to the “six, seven, eight and walk, walk, walk, and fly.”
I consider what it must be like to fly, how perhaps I could do this if I had started long ago and kept at it, how so many things might have been possible in life if I had simply kept to the course.
I think how even a thimble of faith would serve me, how I could just hand over every error, every wrong turn, every stupid thing I’ve ever said or done, every moment wasted, every misplaced word spilled: “Here, dear Lord, whoever you are, if indeed you are: it’s yours.” And then I could walk, walk, walk and fly.
Some turn over the debris field of their lives to their bartender, or drug dealer, or to Christian Louboutin at $900 a red-soled pair, and I think my punch pass for six lessons seems a better deal.
I look around the room at the whirling forms—such elegance, sheer poetry in motion—and realize that if I added up the ages of any three other students, I am still older. I tell myself it doesn’t matter.
I never thought of myself as impetuous before, but I never thought of myself as one who danced, either. I liked the notion of being free, of being light, of shaking the weight of tradition, the baggage of history, the demands of duty, and of evaluating each opportunity from scratch, as if with new eyes, as if it had arisen for the first time in a new world.
What is my advanced age but liberation, I tell myself, the glory of freedom surely a gleaming pearl in the history of human thought. What’s an old lady like me doing looking for pearls? I know my place—I know it better than the lines in my face, the furrow of my brow, the topography of my crooked bones—and I’ve walked away from it. Run, actually, straight to this studio in this foreign neighborhood where the brilliant clothing and tightly packed painted houses put color back into the world, where no one knows me, where no one would possibly look for me, where I walk, walk, walk, and soon, I would fly.
My teacher says I need to buy short shorts, that my yoga clothes are wholly insufficient, and that I’ll never be able to climb the pole in cotton leggings that slip.
Climb the pole?
She says I need my thighs, and I need my skin. Honey, I need everything I’ve got and then some I think, but because she is lovely and kind, I hold my snappy tongue, do as she asks, and go to the store.
I tell myself it doesn’t matter that I haven’t worn shorts since 1968, and that on me this spandex get-up I have settled upon looks like a man’s bathing costume from the Victorian age.
The proportions are all wrong but I couldn’t possibly wear what I see on the other students: tiny little bottoms that barely cover panties, gauzy tops that float over toned midriffs, lacey black bras, and the dazzling rhinestone-studded ornaments that secure volumes of young hair pulled back in loose constructions.
The mirrors in the store dressing room are fiercely lighted—no forgiveness here. I think how much more clothing would be sold if they toned it down a bit, painted the walls a warm red and the ceiling a plush purple. I think how much better I would feel if the sales attendant, who poked her head through dressing room curtains, thought to remark: “You could fly in that get-up—definitely.”
I buy what I need; it costs sixty bucks, the price of dinner and drinks for two at decent place, which is what women my age and station in life are supposed to spend their money on, but with real dance clothes now, the right outfit, I tell myself that I fit in.
The other students are sweet and accepting, and I am buoyed by their encouragement and their spirit, only to learn that mine intrigues them. It took some weeks but overcoming shyness they asked—as we shrugged off coats, sweaters, pants, socks, and shoes and hustled into class—just why exactly was I here? As a lawyer, dodging difficult questions is effortless and I turned the inquiry back to them. Besides, as a writer, I am far more interested in eliciting their stories than divulging mine. They cite exercise, gracefulness, strength training, normal reasons, and I agree. No one cites a desire to strip, or make extra cash, or please a man. No one mentioned the speed of life passing, either, or the idea of dreams seized, or the hope of remaking oneself into something better, something lovelier, something strong, or the desire to wake up from the humdrum of life, and I refrain from interjecting these observations garnered from the slippery slope side of life. These women, my fellow students, were still on the climb, the summit hardly visible even if you squinted.
With such scant clothing on all the students, the tattoos and piercings are visible, the ring through the belly button, the black angel wings down shoulder blades, the arms and legs tatted up and down with vines, skulls, crosses, and lyrics from songs I’ve never heard. What would possess a person to ink up their silky smooth, super taut, perfectly formed, beautiful body? I seek to understand, not judge, and hope they are similarly minded when they glance my way.
I tell myself that my unsightly blue-black veins I had hoped to cover but now exposed are perhaps mistaken as tattoos.
I pretend that no one notices my “Hello, Mabel!” underarms either, the slight flapping that accompanies one old woman’s greeting of another across the picket fence, a basket of laundry tucked on an ample hip.
My teacher says, “Push out those boobies; pop out that booty,” and I think even in my long-ago youth, I never used those terms.
I’m sure that this is part of the problem, my buttoned-up approach to things, a life of the mind, surely an impediment to being able to walk, spin, and fly.
I wonder if maybe, just maybe, when the things that plague a life hit—financial ruin, for example, or a tear in the family fabric, or some peculiar neurological glitch, or a smoky haze of a tumor on the x-ray, or the shadow of mental illness, or some other sharp trauma that throws a person back on her heels—if pushing out one’s boobies and popping out one’s booty, if focusing, above all, on the beauty of the dance would help?
I think so—but it isn’t easy.
I have practiced law, built a library and a maker space, published books, essays, and a blog, birthed and raised two very fine young men, am a devoted family member, sit on boards, look after my mother, hosted countless dinner parties, mentored kids, mastered several musical instruments and foreign languages, navigated city streets in super high heels, faced down countless jerks, and traveled to many remote places of the world—but this? The complicated art and demanding science of dance? This is very hard.
My teacher says that this next move is “a little bit sassy” and I know it will be a devil to execute, and that there’s something terribly wrong when not one of these sassy moves comes easily.
I tell myself the pole is just a tool like a yoga mat, or my barbells, or the Pilates reformer but this is only half true. The pole is different.
I watch the teacher approach that pole as if it is her partner in life, the soul mate only the lucky find in some grand karmic calculus. I see her grasp, spin, climb, and express everything inside of her, all the longing and disappointment, all the loneliness and exhilaration. In the arc of her spine, in her spinning form, she narrates an exquisite, tender story, wordless and precise.
I tell myself that all I need is practice and maybe much better shorts.
I wonder: when did I become such a beautiful liar?
Walk, walk, walk, and fly.
Just that, I think. Focus. Point those toes. Draw up that spine. Don’t look down. Have some faith. I tell myself: at this moment, your place is here, on these bare floors and in skimpy clothes, in shorts so fitted that if I put quarter down the backside, you could read from a distance whether it was heads or tails. No matter, I tell myself; never mind your age, never mind your body. Leave those things outside of the studio, in the hall where you hung your coat and slipped out of your street clothes and your normal life? Discard your preconceptions too, along with your socks, crumpled and stuffed in your sensible shoes.
Here, in the studio, regular life falls away. Within these red-mirrored walls, under the eggplant-colored ceiling, the lights low, the music soft, the teacher’s voice pulling, pushing, coaxing, a new life composed of movement finds expression. Here, I am barefoot, my history is washed clean, and my soul quivers, naked as a newborn.
Push up your boobies. Pop out your booty. Walk, walk, walk, and fly.
The class responds. Bodies twirl, a beautiful sight repeated in mirror after mirror, a fluid demonstration of all that’s right in the world.
“You too, now; give it a try,” she says. She means me.
I take my place, grasp the pole, and lift my chin.
Five, six, seven, eight…
If not now, when?
I focus on the beauty, spin with abandon, and forget about the lies.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.