By Adriana Paramo
By the time I arrive at the ladies only gym where I’m supposed to do a Zumba® demonstration, a few of the women are already at the lobby waiting for me. It’s hard to communicate with them, first, because they are Arab and don’t speak English fluently, and second, because I didn’t expect them to be in full Muslim garb: black robe, head covering, black veil over their faces. I say hello, sign in, and open the studio.
While I plug in my ipod and get ready to start, the women disrobe in the hallway. I see their reflections in the mirror. Under their black abayas, they have animal print leotards and figure-hugging leggings and Victoria’s Secret t-shirts and loud multicolor sneakers. They fill their water bottles; friends kiss each other in the right cheek, two, three, four times; they checked their cell phones one last time before the class, and walk in, ready to party.
I start out nice and slow with “Cumbia Arabe,” a song that invites a few machete motions of the hand, a shuffling travel across the room, and a very basic salsa step. The women do their best to follow. They try, I mean, they really try to make sense of this rhythm from faraway lands and histories, this rhythm of incandescent drums, possessed accordions, relentless gourds, and high-pitched flutes. They need to relax, let their guard down, and simply feel the music, I think while I study their apprehensive moves in the mirror. And just like that, some let loose and a few of them do some Arabic-inspired hip shaking. So far so good. At the end of the second song I hoot with my chirpiest fitness instructor’s voice.
“Are we warm yet? Wooh, wooh.”
They don’t hoot back. My imitation of an owl either confuses or embarrasses them. I can’t tell. They are shy, not sure about how to behave in this unchartered territory of latinness, let alone make animal sounds. Maybe they need something faster. I go for a merengue—more like a perico ripiao—that involves some serious grinding, pelvis back-and-forth shaking and my version of a clean twerk. Three of them stop, showing no intention of following me, and it dawns on me that maybe I’ve gone too far, that I’ve crossed the line, that I’m teaching a class of hip-gyrations, frantic pelvic-tilting, and booty-jiggling to a group of ultra conservative Muslim women. I’m sure they feel nude, exposed. They are anonymous under their black abayas and burqas, and this anonymity is their shield when they are outside their homes, but here, in the dance studio, they are naked before each other.
What was I thinking? I’m in the Middle East to finish writing a book not to teach Latin dances. Zumba® is a thing on the side, something that I do for fun, which come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t do after all. It crosses my mind that this kind of dancing might even be forbidden in this country; that the moment the word gets out about all this rattling and shaking I’ll be sent back to the sunshine state on the first available plane. But just like that, I see the women, self-conscious and hesitant, giving this dirty grinding thing a go. This encourages me to do more. I lunge into a crazy quebradita of high hill-Billy jumps and back-kicks; I show them some serious pectoral-pumping, which makes one of them hold her bouncing breasts with both hands. She gives me an embarrassed, mortified smile. But a smile nonetheless.
I figure that if they are offended, they’d either stop and leave the class, or report my vulgarity to the manager. They do neither. Most of them have never worked out and came to the class just because they heard I’d be playing Latin music, which they love. They can’t do full squats, or lunges, or Pliés. The 1-2-3-pop of the bachata confuses them and the four-beat measure of salsa makes them giggle. I play Gloria Stefan’s “Wepa” and half way through it I shout: “Walk sexy!” and I do my sexy walk with both arms extended over my head, hips popping right and left. They don’t walk sexy. Not here, anyway. If they do, they do it for their husbands at home, or at weddings where older women walk about looking for future wives for their sons.
“Are you ladies having a good time? Whoohoo!!!” I get nothing in return. They heave and gasp for air. Every time one goes out to the water fountain I wonder if she’d return to the studio, or if I’ve scared her away with Pit Bull’s reggaeton and Carlos Vives’s vallenato. They all come back, sweaty and breathless. I can’t stop smiling. I shout my most Colombian wepa, Weh – pah, a word of jubilation that makes sense to no one in the room.
During the water break, as we wipe the sweat off our faces, I have a childish thought. Would it not be fantastic if we could stage a So You Think You Can Dance for world leaders? Before one more settlement is demolished in Gaza or one more gun is fired in the West bank, let’s get Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu on the dance floor. Dance off your differences, Hot Shots, and let the best dancer win. I know it’s shallow. Please allow me some levity here as I’m a dancer, a musical being and therefore, a child at heart. I interpret the world through dance. My surroundings are filled with notes and trebles and beats. I dream about music. If whistling is a musical expression, then my mother was a world class musician. My sister is a contralto, my brother a baritone, my father was a fantastic dancer. Rhythm is in my blood. I can accurately describe the personalities of the women in my classes based on how they move: the bold and the reckless, the timid and the afraid, the butterfly trapped in a diving bell, the risk taker, the hard worker, the perseverant, the patient, the unstoppable, the firefly, the warrior, the unhappy. Can we get Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin and the leaders of each side of the Ukrainian conflict in a locked ballroom, watch them sashay across the floor to a martial waltz, shake their stiff hips to a dirty mambo, and not let them out until they have exhausted and out-danced each other?
Current conflicts have caused thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, social tragedies, political instability, and human misery. Not a laughing matter. Yet, I look at the women in this room, including me, and realize that thanks to music we have crossed that infinite bridge that separates our cultures, languages, upbringings, religions. It is through music that we conquer our differences and everything that sets us apart. Through music, right here, right now, I’m not a Colombian, Spanish-speaking writer, working out with Arabic-speaking Muslim women. No. This gym is a sorority. We are sisters. Sweaty sisters. That’s why as I get back on the stage, it dawns on me that the world leaders have tried everything to patch up their differences: peace talks, armed responses, truces, green zones, etc. They have tried everything, except dance. Why not? Dance is as old as the human race is and we’ve had war dances in every corner of the planet and in ever period of our history. The Greeks had the Pyrrhic War dance, the Maoris do the Haka, the Brazilians have the capoeira, the Scottish Highlanders still do the Ghillie-Callum, Native Americans (Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Apache, Shoshoni, Lakota, Paiute, etc.) have had, historically, impressive war dances as close to real wars as they get.
I know, I know. This is childish, simplistic and out of touch with the realities of modern life, but something tells me that Obama would’ve passed his executive order on immigration a lot sooner had he gone face-to-face on a dance off with his opponents.
At the end of the class, after cooling down to “Hay Amores,” a bolero by Shakira, I stay behind getting my things together. By the time I come out, the women have already changed into their abayas and burqas and I can’t tell who is whom. I recognize their shoes, the shapes of their bodies, and the eyes of a woman with heavy mascara and thick eyeliner that sweat did not smudge. I ask them if they had a good work out and I hear a few nice, and thank you. One woman asks me as she fastens the burqa at the back of her head, “From where you?”
“I’m from Colombia,” I say. Her face disappears behind the veil as she translates into Arabic for those within earshot. Someone mentions Thalía, the name of a popular Mexican singer. I tell them that the singer and I are from different countries. I switch to my baby Arabic.
“Ana Meen Culumbia.”
“Oh, Culumbia. Fee America?” she asks.
“Na’am,” I say. “Yes, I’m from South America. Fee America Al-Janoobeea.”
Among unintelligible words I hear the names Shakira and Sofia Vergara. It would have been amazing to hear them say Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toto la Momposina, but I’m happy with Shakira.
“You Latina?” one woman asks.
We hold gazes. Something within me swells and wants to burst like a piñata. I’m far away from the mountains of my beloved Colombia, from the lushness of my second home— Florida—where I’m surrounded by people I love; I’m here in the Arabian Desert teaching women to do the cha-cha-cha. How could I explain to them what it really means to do what I do? The geographical and cultural borders that I cross when I’m inside the studio; the religious boundaries that music erases when we dance together; this hour-long community of sweaty mothers, wives, daughters, sisters colluding to transcend our obvious differences just because we can.But of course I don’t say any of this. I just smile and say, “Yes, habibti, I’m Latina.”
About Adriana Paramo, Writing for Peace Adviser
Writing for Peace Adviser Adriana Paramo is a memoirist, mother, daughter, wife, friend, student, sister, teacher, dance instructor, and award-winning author of two nonfiction books:
“Looking for Esperanza” and “My Mother’s Funeral.”
Learn more about her work here.
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