Does a fast-paced dancing-based workout class make the man who enjoys it any less manly? Absolutely not, says Emily Rapp, who has found a male friend for life on the sweat-filled dance floor.
I am a self-anointed gym rat. Although I live in Santa Fe, a city famous for its year-round accessibility to outdoor recreational pursuits, apart from the occasional gut-busting hike or a trip to the local ski area, I’m mostly an indoor girl. I like to run on the treadmill and watch Law and Order. I’ve never learned to ride a bike that wasn’t bolted to the floor. I’ve tried just about every style of yoga. My gym-rattish nature is notorious for benefiting my girlfriends. In Boston I’d bust into my roommate’s room at six in the morning when it was below zero outside and drag her to a boot camp class. My best friend jokes that every time she visits from London she gets fit. I love to put together weight training programs for friends. Until this past year I’ve never really hit the gym with a dude on any kind of a regular basis. Enter, of all activities, Zumba. At the gym I attend, this pseudo dance class is taught by a fabulous, openly gay, gorgeous, ridiculously flexible beauty who can seriously shake it. Weirdly, I have finally found a male exercise partner through this female-dominated activity: a man I’ll call Bud.
Bud is about as traditionally “manly” as they come, if you want to understand what makes a man manly in a severely narrow way: physically strong; heterosexual (I guess? We’re talking about very traditional interpretations here, after all), a married father of two grown sons; high cardiovascular endurance and an ability to bench press more than his body weight. Bud is a retired fire fighter who spent his early 20s in the service. After a long and successful career that involved the most intensive kind of physical labor he is still strong and committed to staying fit into his 60s (he’s 56). He is a sincere, straight-talking, working class guy adjusting to retirement, and sometimes uneasily. I am using exercise (sometimes obsessively) to help me manage grief as my son Ronan, 2 years old, slowly succumbs to an incurable terminal illness. We met on the dance floor when we were both new to Zumba, and we’ve been workout pals ever since.
Bud’s the guy who told me to laminate and post a “Do Not Resuscitate” order directly above my son’s crib so that if I needed to call 911 they wouldn’t be required to “work” Ronan, as Bud described it. Together we discuss what’s happening with the summer wildfires, restaurants we like in Santa Fe, my relatively abysmal—if wildly entertaining (for him)—dating life, and occasionally we take a stab at conversations that discuss the meaning and cruelty of life, but mostly we discuss Zumba dance moves, which we occasionally practice in the middle of the gym floor. Never in my life did I think I’d meet a male workout partner in a dance class. Bud and I pull one another onto the dance floor during the “battle,” when each dancer is supposed to showcase a Zumba move while the rest of the class follows. Let me be clear that neither one of us can dance well; this wild inability combined with earnestness constitutes the majority of the fun. In what other form of exercise do you find yourself giggling openly for an hour and saying “WHOOT!” as a middle-aged woman does a hip-hop move in the middle of the room to the song “Dirty Bit?” It’s not an exaggeration to say that these are the two hours during the week when I actually forget about how deeply sad I am. A few men have wandered in and out of the Zumba revolution, but few have stayed—put off, perhaps, by all the screaming middle-aged women and the ridiculous candy pop music and hip thrusting. Bud and I are faithful, twice-a-week Zumbaneros.
Bud is a man, a man who dances. Since when did being manly mean not being able to make a fool of yourself while trying to learn the steps of the Samba while a gaggle of women scream, “Go, baby, go!” Hasn’t anyone seen the movie Dirty Dancing? Since when did being manly eliminate elements of fun, and bring to mind images of bulking, neckless grunters with bad attitudes, empty brains and fading prison tattoos? Since when did being manly somehow indicate that every relationship you have with a woman must hold within it some element of sexual conquest? A common complaint in gym culture is that men are the predators waiting for the next hot, Lululemon-bedecked woman to wander past the free weights and steal away all their self-control. This depiction of men is offensive, inaccurate, and deeply limiting. So is the notion that doing something other than bench pressing and grunting makes you less manly. In fact, I think that open-minded men like Bud are challenging these preconceptions, and there’s nothing more human, or more interesting, than that. Just because you sweat with someone doesn’t mean their gender disappears from your mind, but it also doesn’t mean they start auto-piloting on primal instincts alone.
When people ask, “Hey, have you ever met a guy at the gym?” I say yes, I have. His name is Bud. He’s 56. We’re gym rats. We’re friends. And we like to dance together.
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.