When I was a little girl (but being raised as a little boy), what I wanted more than anything was to be a dancer. How I longed for it — the lights, the stage, the gorgeous costumes, most of all for the delivering grace of movement in harmony with a choreography greater than myself. Like a little Chinese Billy Elliot, I had a beautiful, impossible dream. But unlike Billy Elliot’s, mine was never realized. Transmisogyny and two left feet saw to that: I was laughed, bullied, or shamed out of every dance class I attempted.
So I was, you will understand, reluctant to accompany a friend of mine — we’ll call him Mark — to Zumba class a couple years ago. (For the uninitiated, Zumba is a brand of dance-based cardio exercise that fuses Latin, Bollywood, and hip-hop dancing into a medley of so-cheesy-it’s-unbearable/amazing aerobic moves, most often set to Latin pop music.)
For one thing, it sounded stupid. For another, I had no desire to relive my elementary and high school dance humiliation amongst what I assumed would be a bunch of Lululemon-wearing, Aquafina-guzzling, bottle-blond spoiled white women. I was an Angry Queer Anarchist™ for heaven’s sake, and I had better things to do, like attend manifs (French for political protests) and write angry social media statuses about transgender rights.
But I did go to Zumba that day, primarily for two reasons. One, Mark was very, very cute; and two, I had a big, fat crush on him.
This was the beginning of my torturous affair with Zumba, an affair that outlasted by months my association with Mark (if there is one lesson that I have to teach you, dear reader, remember this: cute boys come and go, but The Dance is forever). You see, I was right about the Aquafina-drinking Lululemon wearers, but I was wrong about how I would feel, salsa-stepping and booty-shaking among them. I wasn’t humiliated, after all. Dear reader, on that day beneath the fluorescent lights of the YMCA, I was transcendent.
It is perhaps necessary to take a brief interlude here to delve into the context of the relationship between trans women and exercise. For many of us, doing physical activity is a highly emotionally charged, even dangerous, undertaking. Sports and exercise are sites of intense gender policing where regressive notions about the meaning of “male” and female” come to the fore.
Public changing rooms are dangerous for trans women, who are often stereotyped and stigmatized as potential sexual predators who make “real women” feel uncomfortable. Exercise clothing is frequently revealing and emphasizes our bodies in ways that “outs” us to strangers or triggers gender dysphoria. Even supposedly gender-neutral activities are actually segregated as a result of stereotypes about “feminine” versus “masculine” forms of exercise — the Zumba demographic, for example, is heavily skewed toward women and has become extremely popular among women of many countries.
People who stand out while at the gym, dance studio, or even jogging outside, are heavily scrutinized, trans women and trans femmes most of all. In fact, sociological health research has shown that trans people are much less likely to exercise than cis people due to transphobia in athletics and fitness.
All of this can bring up painful memories for trans women of physical and emotional violence related to sports and physical activity, where many of us are first exposed to transmisogyny, the form of abuse that is directed specifically at trans women for failing to fulfil cisgender norms of masculinity.
Suffice it to say, perhaps, that my first Zumba class with Mark was also my first trip to the gym in several years, despite the fact that I was fairly athletic as a child and teenager — the result of my father forcing me into various sports in an attempt to “man me up.”
So I expected to feel that familiar shame at Zumba, the same sort of helpless, clumsy self-loathing that I felt as a six-year-old trying to imitate my older sister’s ballet class only to get laughed at by all the parents. The kind of shame that says “you’re not a real girl, and you never will be.”
Instead, however, after a few minutes of awkwardly merengue-ing, gyrating and high-stepping at the back of the class to the Enrique Iglesias blasting through the loudspeakers, I began to feel something completely different.
In Zumba, there is no expectation that one actually has to dance well. Enthusiasm is all that is required. And the truth is that the moves are so blatantly ridiculous that no one looks good doing it anyway (there are always two or three women in the class who take themselves too seriously, but they mostly just raise the amusement factor).
So as I twirled, cha-cha-ed and clapped my hands to the beat, I began to remember, for the first time in a long time, those moments I used to steal as a kid, dancing alone in my room with headphones on. Those fleeting moments when what I looked like didn’t matter, only what I felt. Only this time, I wasn’t a child anymore. There was no one who could burst in unannounced, laugh at me, punish me, force me to stop. I felt so free, so beautiful, in a way I had written off as impossible for me long ago.
It sounds silly, but right then and there, surrounded by the Lululemon-clad, middle-aged women, my inner dancer began to emerge from the deep pit where I had kept her all this time. I found the girlhood I was never allowed.
I carried on with Zumba for the next year. I was converted. Nay, I was obsessed. I talked about Zumba much too frequently. I annoyed people with it. I may have permanently damaged a friendship by dragging another trans woman to a class, insisting that she would have the same transformative experience I did (she didn’t, and she never came back).
Despite my months of dedicated attendance to twice and (sometimes thrice) weekly Zumba classes, the cis women at the gym never stopped staring hostilely at me in the studio. At least once per class, someone would bump into me “by accident.” Frequently, I was asked to move from the front to the back row because I “was blocking the view” of the instructor. (Note: there has to be someone in the front row, and they are always blocking the view of the instructor.)
In the change room, they glared. A staff member at the gym even came up to me a couple of times to make sure I didn’t cell use phone in the change room because I “might be taking pictures” with it. And little by little, with each small act of aggression, my old shame returned: I felt unwelcome, unwanted, too freakish to dance — just as I had when I was a child.
Little by little, though, as the winter wore on, my enthusiasm waned. I began to go less and less, making excuses to myself as I did so. Finally, I stopped Zumba-ing entirely. Thanks to Zumba, I had learned to love my inner dancer, but my fellow Zumba enthusiasts had not. I still loved dancing, but the setting I was required to dance in had finally worn me down.
There are a million tiny privileges that cisgender people take for granted that trans people cannot: access to public space, to physical activity, to taking joy in our own bodies, are among them. Finding a physical activity that I loved came at the cost of putting up with countless small acts of hostility, and finally, I had had enough.
I still miss it, sometimes — the melodramatic music, the cheesy moves, feeling silly yet sexy and not giving a damn. I hope to go back someday, when I find a new gym, or a thicker skin, or new friends to go with. But I’m okay with waiting. I’ve found what I need to find. Whenever the mood strikes me, I wait until I’m home in my apartment. I put Enrique Iglesias on blast. I close my eyes. And I dance.