By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
New to Zumba, I love the chance to channel the jump-around-like-crazy energy of my late twenties again—here at fifty. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with exercise in a very long time. Unlike the pleasingly prescriptive yoga, which makes me feel serene and strong and slightly, hopefully elastic, Zumba is freeing. I jump on my two left feet. I sweat. I even unleash a few long-dormant “woot”s during class.
I’d never imagined the Y to be a sexy place. Others bring the sexy in; I certainly do not. I pretty much jump up and down when hips are supposed to unleash juicy moves I can’t imagine I’ll ever make—or have ever made, for that matter. I am far more at home with that crazy aerobics class energy of my late twenties (late ’80s and early ’90s) than anything so bootylicious. I’ve made it this far as a rounded (physically and metaphorically), strong, terribly self-critical woman.
Other people follow directions better. The class ranges from teen (almost always the good-girl daughters accompanying their cheery moms to class) to white haired ladies, with a few men, gay and straight, sprinkled in. Attire runs the gamut from Ts and shorts, to workout gear, to one woman’s “uniform” of a sundress and bare feet. Like my town, the Y—and the Zumba class—runs casual. At the same time, the most canned of the Zumba songs not only instruct participants to “move your body,” but to “shake your body,” and to feel and inevitably be—or at least channel—S-E-X-Y. The choreography orchestrates hips to shake and gyrate and suggest … things I’m not about to do during or right after class in the non-privacy of my very own kid- and teenager-filled home.
While I don’t want to make those signature moves, I don’t mind them. I’m especially tickled when the twentysomething instructors lead the class—and unleash their playfulness in shiny workout costumes with glitter on their faces. One spacey man half-points and gestures and magically enlists each participant to stand in as leader, like a Zumba whisperer.
In fact, the only time the make-it-sexy aspect of Zumba makes me terribly uncomfortable is when the class is taught by the middle-aged white ladies a.k.a. my peers (neighbors, fellow moms). Yesterday, for example, the teacher wore her carefully blown-out, long hair down. She wore makeup. She wore an ’80s-style cut-up T accompanied by black bike shorts and black Zumba shoes. I wore a skort and tank. Skorts are fun and flippy but decidedly not sexy. During class, I expended my energies in nearly equal parts between exercising and perseverating over the notion that to try to dance sexy at the Y in midlife could be fun, appropriate—not weird, not desperate.
I reminded myself how much I hate the judgy part of me. This woman’s wardrobe, hairstyle, or sexiness is neither my call nor my problem: my discomfort with her is all about me. And my unease isn’t new. Nor is it entirely about age. My peers’ aggressive delivery of sexiness has always made me squeamish. That’s because I’ve never been at ease with any sexy edges in myself. I grew up heavy enough to feel self-conscious, and regardless of pounds on or off, my self-consciousness has never fallen away. I wouldn’t have worn glitter—not in my twenties, not ever. I barely attempted makeup before I had kids. But I’ve never been prim, either: my cardigans aren’t buttoned up to the top and my skirts aren’t necessarily below the knee. Even before the mom-style overtook me, I liked cute clothing that aimed for cute, sweet, innocent sexy—and never a step further. My vanity has always had very strict bounds. I’ve never worn long hair down to an aerobics class. Practicality always won—with flat shoes over heels, clothes that never bind, and silver hair.
When I’m in Zumba class, I feel pretty … fit. After all, I can push myself to jump around for pretty much the entire hour even if I will not shake my booty, merely “jump and bounce.” Here at fifty, a healthy and fit self is my aim—in public. I want to feel pretty. I like to feel capable, or at least strong enough. I want to keep going.
I only want to let sexy out when and where I’m comfortable doing so. That’s in bed with my husband. We’ve got teenagers, teenage sons. Sexy has no other berth here. With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.
But I’d like to experience the middle-aged ladies’ bids for sexy just as I do the twentysomethings’ bids—as theirs. I’d like to believe that my limitations in class—more jumping and less shaking—could feel as if they aren’t signs of a cop-out. I don’t know that any part of me wants to cultivate my inner-sexy, but I’d like to strut my stuff, on my own terms. If I felt as if I exuded strength and competence and had utter certainty of my beauty… I don’t feel that way, though. The problem with my ideal terms is that they involve a self-confidence that I do not have.
Despite the fact that I don’t possess that self-confidence—and by now, I imagine I might not ever find it—I don’t entirely feel that way. I’m too hard a worker to ever give up entirely. And I do long to experience that exuberant inner-something—if not sexy, then something close. So, as I obsessed about the teacher’s sexy aspirations, I asked myself whether I think that you must check your adult sex-having, sex-seeking, sex-loving self at some imaginary gate when you have children. I don’t. I asked myself whether I believe that you have to give up upon channeling a certain kind of sexy vibe when you reach a certain age. I might, I realized, even though maybe I haven’t even begun to try. I’m not at all sure what sexy looks like at forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five. I don’t know how it translates in this world that equates youth with beauty and sex appeal and power. I wasn’t even thinking I’d contemplate these issues all that much—and certainly not during exercise class at my local Y. But here I am, wondering whether I will surprise myself one of these days—and shake that body.
SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.