It’s summertime and the micro-shorts are out. I’m in a pair right now, headed to the women-only gym above the Wellness Centre on Kloof Street. My exposed legs get a few looks from passing male drivers, but the real attention comes from women. I see the side-eye. I feel the darting looks. I know what they’re thinking.
Can she pull them off? Are her thighs toned enough to see The Line? Does she have cellulite? Does her skin quake and ripple into orange peel every step she takes? Should she even be wearing those?
I see and feel and know these things because I do it too. A pair of German backpackers in frayed denim shorts walk past me and my eyes slide along their quads. A woman with ample thighs in a pair of smart black shorts saunters by and I glance over my shoulder to catch a last glimpse of her cellulite. A gaggle of high school girls who have outgrown their uniform skirts cross my path and I watch their smooth legs lazily carry them home.
The critical thoughts are familiar, but they always surprise me. When did these thoughts become mine? When did I internalize them? I’m reminded of something Petra Collins said about how, despite being aware of what the media is doing to our self-esteem, we still fall prey to it. We know it’s wrong, but we’re still in that school of thought.
It doesn’t take me long to figure out that the harsh questions and judgmental looks aren’t really about the other women at all. They’re about me and my body. Other women have become an endless procession of mirrors to judge myself by.
I begin to think I should have worn leggings to gym.
I hand my membership card to the woman at the front desk and she lets me in. The machines are whirring. The regulars are lifting weights. A row of women are pounding the treadmills. There are all kinds of body shapes here, but somehow it’s only the toned ITBs I remember.
Esther’s Dance for Fitness class is one of the highlights of my week. I spot her and my classmates filing into the dance studio. I join them and take my place in front of the wall-to-wall mirror. The music hasn’t even begun and Esther’s already beaming. It’s hard to believe that up until recently she struggled with her body image. “You put yourself through all that torment, but when you get to a certain age you think, ‘To hell with it. I’m done’.” Esther presses play on the sound system. She starts to move to the music and her unabashed self-assurance fills the room like the heavy beats of her dance mix. I catch a glimpse of my own smile in the mirror.
Esther has been dancing since primary school. She started with ballet at age five and went on to explore contemporary at high school. She was part of a dance troupe after she finished university, but stopped altogether when she entered the corporate world. Seven years went by until she decided, “This can’t carry on! I cannot not dance. That’s why I decided to become a dance fitness instructor. I was wondering where I could continue with what I do, but also for the benefit of other people.”
Esther starts us off with some easy warm up steps. She doesn’t have a set routine for each class. She feels it in the moment. The studio is packed and our mass of bodies in fluorescent exercise gear slides and pumps to the beat. We’re only a few minutes in and I can already feel my insecurities falling away. When you dance, “you forget about everything,” says Esther. “You forget you have a home to go to. You forget you have work, or family issues or self issues.”
“Com’on baby!” yells Esther to a girl to my left whose legs are starting to burn. I look at the reflections of my classmates in the mirror. There are women of all ages and all fitness levels. We’re far from a synchronized dance video. When I watch myself in the mirror, I don’t look half as cool as I feel. My face is twisted in concentration and my moves seem awkward, but somehow it doesn’t matter – and that’s Esther’s doing. She walks up and down the rows to check our form, nodding when we get it right, letting out regular whoops of laughter, and clapping her hands in delight when she spots someone who’s added their own flare to the move.
“Com’on baby, you can do it!”
Esther brings so much humour to the class that it becomes safe to be ridiculous. “No matter if it looks like a comedy showcase. It can be fantastic, it can be casual – it doesn’t matter. We laugh at each other and with each other,” she says. “People laugh at me as well. It’s a good feeling.”
The women in the class hardly say a word to each other, but somehow, with the movement and the laughter, we don’t have to. “Dance is a form of communication,” says Esther. “There are so many women who would love to express themselves, but they are too shy to do it. When they receive that little bit of encouragement, you see every week how people come out of their shells, and how they get to be more in touch with themselves. That is one of my aims; to help every woman get in touch with her soul, to feel herself deep, and then just explode in dance.”
Sexual nuance intended. There is something undeniably orgasmic about Esther’s dance class. We follow her lead and spread our legs wide in a low squat and start to pump the air with our hips.
“Ungh! Ungh! Ungh! Oh! Yeah, baby!” Esther raises her voice over the loud music and her grunts punctuate our twerking.
Ever since Miley Cyrus made the word go viral and swiftly followed through by licking a sledgehammer in Wrecking Ball, I didn’t think twerking was something I’d be into. I sided with Sinéad O’Connor when she wrote an open letter to Miley saying, “it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
I saw Miley’s performances and music videos as an extension of all the other MTV clips that take the male gaze to the extreme and literally reduce women to headless sex objects.
Yet here I am, sweat running down my back, muscles burning from bouncing my butt, and I couldn’t feel more powerful.
I’m not sure where to draw the line between self objectification and self empowerment, but I’m watching one of my classmates watch herself dance in the mirror, and when an intimate expression of sheer joy and self love crosses her face, I know we’re on the right side of the line.
The thing is, Esther creates a sexual space, but not an objectified space. That is in part due to the fact that the gym is women-only. “There are no eyes perving at you,” says Esther. Mixed classes were “rather awkward. The women didn’t feel free to move like they wanted to and like I wanted them to, whereas here we’re comfortable enough to wander around naked in the locker rooms together. This is a safe environment.”
In Mmabatho Montsho’s Women On Sex, a web series that aims to decolonise the sexual experiences of black women in South Africa, she interviews a women who explains that, “Where I come from, sex is not about women. They’re not supposed to enjoy it.”
Perhaps the difference between objectification and empowerment lies in not being enjoyed, but actually enjoying, and what makes dance so subversive is that it’s all about enjoying your body.
When I moved from Zimbabwe to France and finished up my last years of high school there, I was hounded by so-called friends for swinging my hips too much when I walked. They were at that age where they were beginning to understand what was attractive to men, and flirted with the idea of doing it, while simultaneously shaming each other for it. I refused to change the way I walked, but it was the beginning of a subtle onslaught of messages to take up less space.
When I come to Esther’s classes, I move my hips in ways I’ve only ever shown my ex.
My shorts have skootched up my thighs and all that cellulite I was cringing about on the way to gym is shaking and thumping. I’m drawing attention to the very part of my body I usually wish would disappear – and there’s power in that.
The more I shed shame, the more I gain power.
“It’s holistic healing,” explains Esther. “That’s what I aim to do through dance.”
Class is over now. I make my way to the locker room to splash my face with water and peel off my clingy sports clothes. I stand on tiptoes and eye my legs critically in the mirror, wondering if the workout has visibly toned them up. A girl walks past and I watch her reflection. Her slim hips slip in a clean line into crisp, muscular thighs, and smooth skin. I’m still out of breath and already the feelings of inadequacy are starting to pull me down from my high.
Esther admits that while she doesn’t care what other people think about her body anymore, she still thinks something about her body.
I could be discouraged by how quickly I return to self-deprecating thought patterns, but instead I remind myself of something journalist Laurie Penny wrote in her book Unspeakable Things: “feminism isn’t an identity. It’s a process.”
That’s why I’ll be at Esther’s dance class same time, same place, next Monday.
Writing and photographs by @baobabjo_