08/12/2011 03:53 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2011

The Mermaids' Song

Many years ago I stayed with some friends in Washington while I attended a national convention. My hosts were well connected in diplomatic circles, and invited me to a fancy reception. As we walked into the reception, one person in our little group said to me, "If anyone asks you what convention you're attending, you may want to hurry and change the subject."

Because my convention was for aerobic dance instructors.

I became an instructor in my forties, because I could not be counted on to exercise unless someone was waiting for me, clapping for me, and paying me as well, and oh yes, I had to be in charge so that I could use my own favorite music and do simple moves that I, and everyone, can remember.

So imagine my surprise to hear I was not to mention my occupation at this elegant Washington reception. Did my pals consider us instructors stupid? Bimbos?

I was truly taken aback. For me, one of the highest callings a person can have is leading exercise classes. The whole country should thank them by approving huge salaries for them. An MBA basketball star gets millions a year to throw a ball in a basket for you, and what have you got when you leave the game? Probably a bigger tush and damaged ears. You leave your exercise class (if you go... honey... if you go) and what have you got? A happier soul, a healthier body, and a lot more energy. Next time you go to class, kiss your instructor.

This particular convention in Washington was for instructors who wanted to lead the same sort of class, but in the water. I was enjoying the whole experience, and learning so much about muscles, and water resistance, and the healing properties of water, and the fun of designing a class with superb music. All my creative juices were in full flow. I learned how to take full advantage of Peggy Lee's Fever, and Perry Como's Papa Loves Mambo, and on and on. Roger Miller's King of the Road and Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons were just made for increasing upper body strength in water, to say nothing of the inner thighs!

I look back on that evening now, and have to laugh, remembering the lovely party, and the distinguished diplomats I met. When one gentleman from an African country asked me what my job in Washington was, I told him I was just visiting, and then I told him the exact truth. His response was, "This sounds wonderful! I would like to be in a class like this! How can I join this class? Can I get one started in my own country? Everyone needs this class!" My well-connected friends were dumfounded.

That was over thirty years ago, and my class and I have been together in summertime ever since. The year my ladies and I became amphibious, my husband and I were just building a new home, and we added an outdoor pool. When I told the architect I wanted a bar in the pool, meaning a ballet bar running along both sides, I got another surprise: he had drawn in a fancy alcohol bar, poolside. But we got it all straightened out, and fourteen of us dance in that turquoise water whenever summer comes and my time permits.


Anne, the oldest of us is now 88, and moves like a teenager. She says her secret to staying young is keeping company with younger friends, and never missing her morning water class all winter at the community pool ("It keeps my body from feeling creaky"). She never wastes a breezy day, and gets her kite out and calls my sister to come help her send it up to the sky.

We share stories, sadnesses, garage sale announcements, good movies and books, and family foibles. We give each other therapy. Those in their eighties counsel the mother of sassy teenagers that this too will pass. At the end of summer, we hold a potluck lunch. (We're trying not to repeat the day that every single person brought brownies. ) And we sit around the table and share our lives.

We are getting wrinkled, and not just from being in the water. Our hair is thinning. Some of us are fighting cancer and determined to win but know that either way, we're living life to the fullest.

We are getting forgetful. Vicky says she was on her cell phone, shouting to her son that she'd lost her cell phone. As she dug around in her purse, the phone cradled to her ear, her son asked, "Mom, what are you talking on, then?"

But the best story of the day was from Ruth. Ruth is 78, and taking care of her mother, who is 98, and forgetting most things these days. One day Ruth came in and her mother said, "Hello, Virginia." Now Virginia is Ruth's sister, so Ruth went over to her mom and put her hands on her shoulders and said, "Now Mom. Who am I?"

Her mother looked at her and then patted her, saying, "You just give yourself a minute, honey. It'll come back to you."

I think it's the best advice in the world.