I went to Zumba for one reason only: Because Rabbi Wallerstein thought it was treif. I was curious to know what could be so bad about an aerobics dance class, and attending would give me more knowledge than Rabbi Wallerstein could ever have.
I wound up attending two separate classes. One was a Jewish class in a local shul, where I danced with a bunch of bubbies in their bubbie sheitels. I was below the average age by about 40 years. The second was in a non-Jewish studio where I was underaged by only 25 years.
It seems Zumba is what physical therapists prescribe to old ladies who need to stay active. And a band of chubby, smiling bubbies—even doing salsa steps—was hardly the den of ignominy I was expecting.
But those bubbies: they were moving their hips.
Bais Yaakov maidels—at least the Ashkenazi ones—do not have hips. We are one fused bone from the ribs to the knees. We don’t even fold at the waist, except to sit, because bending at the waist is immodest. If there is one thing our teachers drove home from Megillas Ruth, it was that bending from the waist is one of the least modest things we could do. One should bend like an ergonomics poster: at the knees, with a straight back.
Sephardim do have hips, though, and they wildly disagree with the Ashkenazic notion that moving them is inherently immodest.
I was once at a Sephardi wedding, and overheard an older woman tutting at how the Ashkenazi girls were dancing. “All this jumping and kicking,” she shook her head. “It’s not tzniut. It’s so wild! Why do they teach them this? Tzniut dancing is slow and gentle—that is how a Jewish woman should dance.” And with that, she rotated a hip and followed it into the dancing circle.
So if Ashkenazim are worried that their women will discover their hips through Zumba, they can be comforted by knowing that at least they’re becoming more modest by Sephardic standards.
Anyway, attending Zumba was the first time I had ever willingly participated in dance. This should sound odd, but I have spent the majority of my life defending my right to not dance.
It all started in elementary school. We had no gym or outdoor space, but NYS required us to have physical education. So they hired a teacher to teach us simcha dancing in the lunch room.
I did not want to dance. I was a self-aware and self-conscious kid, and I knew that I couldn’t dance worth beans. I couldn’t pick up the steps. And if, through sheer focus, I got the steps right, I was inevitably off the beat. And if I managed to get them both at the same time, I was as elegant and graceful as a puppet jerking around on strings.
I looked stupid and I knew it.
So I refused to participate.
There was a brief battle of wills between me and the teacher. I would hide behind a structural column, not participating. She would tell me to dance. I would shuffle my feet while she was looking and then stop and slide behind the pole when she stopped. Repeat a few times.
She demands to know if I intend to dance today.
I shake my head no.
She tells me to go sit in the corner until I’m ready to dance.
I go sit.
Ten minutes later she asks me if I’m ready to dance.
I say no.
She lets me sit there five more minutes and asks again.
I shake my head; I will never be ready to dance.
She tells me to get up and dance anyway.
Side note: my dancing hasn’t improved one jot since then. And with mirrored studio walls to reflect my flailing knees and elbows back at me, Zumba taught me only one thing: I’m less self-conscious than I was in fourth grade.
I still don’t know where my hips are.
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