I couldn’t keep up with most of the moves, being new to Jovonne’s class, but I’d taken enough dance instruction in my youth to remember to start with the feet and eventually the arms would follow. The body roll, however, was like something in a language I didn’t speak. Where do you start the roll? Should my hips be shoving forward or rounding back? Oh jeez, am I doing this backward? I stood still and watched, a 49-year-old piece of jetsam in a sea of perfect, sensual waves.
When I was 15 or 16, my best friend Holly and her mom, Bonnie, treated me to a dance workshop in L.A. taught by Eddie Mekka, an actor-dancer best recalled as Carmine “The Big Ragoo” Ragusa from the hit 1970s sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Exciting, to be sure, and also what comes most to mind is seeing myself going one direction in the mirror while everyone else went the other.
Because Holly was my best friend and a dancer, and because her mom owned a dance studio, I ended up taking (read: they made me take) a number of classes over the years. Mostly jazz. Any sense of rhythm and movement that exists in my body – I can do a pas de bourrée and a basic turn without thinking too hard about either – come from having to show up week after week despite my lack of natural ability. As a shy and awkward kid, I considered the weekly embarrassment a form of torture, but as an adult, I’ve never stopped finding moments to be grateful for knowing a little bit of dance, for understanding how my body might move. Any hint of physical grace that I might display is owed to Holly and Bonnie’s patience and pushing.
In the adult version of my life, dancing has primarily taken the form of classic drunk white-girl moves at the club – oh, the exuberance! – and, in recent years, sober grooving at early morning rave-ish dance parties in San Francisco. My husband and I also spent a month taking salsa classes, which I partly enjoyed (the actual dancing) and partly did not (having to dance with men I did not enjoy dancing with).
And then, sometime last year, my 26-year-old coworker Delia suggested I try Jovonne’s dance class at Healthsport.
Look, I’m not a religious person. Nature is typically my cathedral, the ocean my church, my surfboard a dependable path to transcendence. But even not knowing the dances, Jovonne’s class exhilarated me into straight-up bliss in a way that (at risk of sounding unhinged) brought me nearly to tears. Partly because moving your body to music is naturally happymaking. Partly because I had to set aside all I usually carry on my mind to have any hope of following along. Mostly because, even more than the mechanics of learning the routine, entering into Jovonne’s space meant leaving all my baggage behind.
And man, there’s baggage. Put me on a stage to deliver a speech and I’m golden, but walking into a room full of strangers without a role? It’s only in recent years that the experienced woman I am has been able to quiet the timid girl I used to be. And when it comes to my body doing what I want, well, we’ve had a troubled relationship, the ol’ body and me. I’ve been unkind and critical, focusing on what it’s not (smooth, thin, graceful, obedient) instead of what it is (a miracle of functionality that has brought me delight, carried and borne three children, and endured despite all I’ve put it through). So sure, on one hand, walking into a new dance class is totally nbd; on the other, it’s a little internal triumph every time.
But what makes the class exceptional is Jovonne herself. She fills the room with this energy that both demands and bestows self-acceptance – it’s as if your personal trainer and spiritual advisor had melded into a single being determined that yes, you are going to love the hell out of yourself by the end of this class and yes, you are going to get down to get there.
One of my favorite things about the class is watching the regulars. A few guys take the class, but I’m fascinated by the women – such a mix of ages, sizes, looks. I imagine most people they interact with during the day don’t realize that inside this woman they’re passing on the street or handing their credit card to at the service desk lives a dancer whose moves and confidence would blow their minds. I love being reminded that we all contain multitudes, that we all have the chance to find ourselves through movement, practice and abandon.
Even me, even yet.
How to do a body roll per Jovonne: Hold your hands up high, then move like you’re pulling a tight sweater dress over yourself, starting by leaning your head through the imaginary opening, then rolling it down over your shoulders, chest, belly, hips. It makes sense when you’re doing it. I still need a lot of practice.