Trigger warning: I will be discussing my own struggles with food, body image, and mental health.
As a Zumba instructor, myself, I really enjoy attending a variety of other fitness classes- yoga, Group Power- I’ll try anything. Last week, my sister and I attended Strong by Zumba for the first time. It’s essentially a HIIT class where the music is reverse engineered to match the moves and is a great total-body workout. We tried going again this past weekend, but my sister wasn’t feeling well and ended up leaving the studio after the warm-up. I stayed, however; I was the only other person to have shown up to the class, and didn’t want to leave the instructor without any students. She and I discussed how it must have been the beautiful weather outside (right at 70 deg.!) that barred others from coming to her class that day. I won’t lie- I was almost one of those people.
So there we were, just the Strong by Zumba instructor and me. Surprisingly, the 55 minutes that ensued were not at all awkward. In fact, I preferred this; I didn’t have to worry as much about my body and the way it might look through a sequence of V-steps, high-knees, and burpees to the people around me. The thing is, I worry a lot about the way I look, and not just at the gym. I struggle with my body image, the calories in the food that I do or do not eat, and my day-to-day functioning, overall.
I have an eating disorder.
That’s still difficult to
say write. I was diagnosed over 3 years ago with a mix of symptoms from anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder– meaning my beliefs and compulsions did not call for categorization into just one diagnosis.
I sought out therapy at the on-campus counseling center two weeks after realizing that there might be something wrong. I was in the first month of my Master’s program and the stress from school was already piling on. For various reasons, I went through 4 therapists in a year. After spending 9 months receiving treatment for an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression from my fifth therapist, I spent the 10th month arguing with him about whether or not I was even sick. I had myself convinced that I wasn’t. You’ve probably heard that the first step to any kind of recovery is admitting that you have a problem. Through this experience, I came to realize that even recognizing and admitting my problem didn’t mean that this part of my journey was over- it won’t always be easy to stick with my realizations, especially in the face of a culture that too often discredits mental health professionals and sweeps depression under the rug (more on that in an upcoming post). In what is now my fourth year of chasing full recovery, I still have difficult days in terms of believing whether or not I even struggle with a very legitimate mental illness. I often tell myself that I’m just weak or lack self-control. Objectively, I know that this is not the case.
I want to address the title of this post; I want to talk about why it is that teaching Zumba is so much more than choreography and cuing.
After being dragged to my first Zumba class in undergrad, I was shocked at how quickly I got hooked. I’ve loved dancing ever since I was little, but had never done it in any sort of formal setting, like at a gym. By the second class, I had claimed a position in the front row, and had become one of those students- you know the ones, who get to class an obnoxious 45 minutes early just to claim their spot and get way too noticeably offended if it gets taken anyway?
The following summer, I attended a Zumba instructor training. However, it wasn’t until 3 years later- this year- that I was able to find the time to teach my own class. I started teaching Zumba at Bob’s Gym in Evansville, Indiana, this past July. The reason teaching is so different from being a student among a sea of many other students is that you are on display. I was still at the front of the room, but this time I was alone. All of a sudden, everyone was staring at me and I assumed that they all expected me to look like the perfect athlete, to catch every beat drop perfectly, and to just be…perfect. My sense of perfectionism manifested long before I started teaching dance, but I have definitely carried it over into this new job.
What’s interesting is that whether or not I’m having a good mental health day- I almost never teach a class without any mistakes. When I feel well, I get so lost in the music that I sometimes forget that I’m teaching. I’ll end up missing a cue or just do the wrong step altogether. When I feel anxious and self-conscious, it’s almost as though I can no longer hear the music over the multitude of thoughts running through my head. Am I too fat to be a Zumba instructor? Can they tell? Is everyone as bored as they look? Are they getting a good enough workout? Should I push myself harder? But my knees are already killing me. Am I burning the calories I need to, to eat after this? Is it okay to have a Gatorade to rehydrate, even though it has calories? Can they tell I’m exhausted? Why didn’t more people show up? Why did too many people show up? I’m going to quit. Does it look bad if I quit? What if I completely stop working out if I quit? Over and over for an hour until I can thank everyone for coming and take off the mic.
So, why not quit? Cliché alert: it’s because of my students. The first day that my class was introduced to Bob’s Gym, I had 3 participants. I was mortified. The next week, there were closer to 5 or 6 and I felt relieved that there was anyone at all. My class isn’t nearly as big as any of the other, more established, Zumba classes (mine fluctuates between 5 and 15), but it means a lot that I have had “regulars” since day 1 and that new people continue to come weekly. My students have mentioned off-hand their reasons for coming to my class: stress relief, betterment of health, liking my playlist. They inspire me with each hour that we’re together; at one point, seeing them out-dance me to my own choreography would have stressed me out. Now, I tend to lose my place in the music because I’m so excited and in awe of their hard work and dedication to their health. Last week, one of the ladies modified the entirety of one of our usual songs to encompass the harder version of all of the moves. It was so. cool. I used to tell myself that the only reason that anyone ever showed up to my class was for convenience of location and timing, but it’s a good feeling to know that it may go beyond that.
I’m on my sixth therapist now and am trying to be okay with the fact that, once I leave for PT school, there may have to be a seventh and maybe even an eighth and a ninth. As far as recovery is concerned, I have a long way to go, but by letting go of the need to be the perfect fitness instructor, I might be just one salsa step closer to where I want to be.
For more information on eating disorders, treatment and recovery, click here to visit the National Eating Disorders Association’s official website.