The music pulsed through the room a little too loudly, its rhythm bouncing off walls and bodies until we began to move in an uneven unison, our hands, feet and hips trying to mimic our teacher's every move.
To the outside world, we were a dozen sweaty women -- at a glance, between the ages of 30 and "pushing 60" -- getting an hour's worth of workout from a Latin-influenced aerobics class known as Zumba. But from the first hip roll, we became something else entirely: a coven of wild women in gym shoes. Here was freedom and respite for our work-wearied souls.
I am nothing if not disciplined. I work out every day, running miles outside or pushing foot pedals set at maximum resistance on an elliptical workout machine. At midlife, the fight for fitness is a daily battle, my goal no loftier than to keep my butt from becoming the size and shape of my office chair. This discipline carries over into my writing world, where deadlines are carved in stone and not etched in sand, where all the "thou shalts" of expectations command my attention.
Discipline that puts the artist at the easel or the keyboard each day is noble. The danger, however, is that routine can become so deeply rutted that we no longer see over the sides. No matter what form of creativity we practice, we need to break the daily mold, lest it become too strict, snuffing out the riotous sparks that must be present in our work.
For me, freeing my spirit has come through movement and music, both of which have become largely absent from my life. An aerobics class at the gym is a perfectly normal and acceptable cover for what drew me and I'd wager every other woman in that studio: the desire to dance freely, exuberantly. The first time the long-haired teacher did a shimmy and barked "go crazy" into her microphone headset, I needed no second invitation. My mind cleared as I put my body through the paces: hips left and right, grapevine steps, knee raises, fist pumps, kicks and hops. I could think of nothing else except the movement.
The dozen of us who had stolen away from desks, offices and homes shared no cultural tradition other than the desire to burn calories instead of consuming them at noontime on a Thursday. Yet here was a variation of a very old theme: women dancing in ritual and celebration.
We knew it as sisters dancing to the Beatles and the Monkeys in a bedroom down the hall. We knew it as junior high and high school girls who clustered on the gymnasium floor, no longer willing to wait for the boys who would not ask. And we know it now as grown women who leave husbands and dates back at the table at a wedding reception, for the line dance, the jitterbug, or the twist done in bare feet.
In that mirrored aerobics room, we became a band of hip-rolling women doing cha-cha steps with a syncopation encoded in our DNA. I thought of other women, far more graceful, whom I had watched not so long ago in a grassy field in Rwanda, celebrating a heritage that seemed as old and revered as the green hills of east Africa.
Back at my desk once again, trying to put in words the thrill of that class, I was drawn instinctively to my worn paperback copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estes' book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, and the celebration of the Wild Woman archetype that lies dormant within us. The Wild Woman, Pinkola Estes writes, comes back to us through old stories and collective wisdom.
But I found her in another place; in a dance that brought me temporarily but undeniably out of my highly-structured and safely decaffeinated world of productivity. Moving for the sake of movement and dancing purely for the fun of it, I discovered the rhythm of my own beating heart and the creative pulse within my body.