One of my earliest memories is of watching Mater contort herself on the living room carpet, in effortful mimicry of an energetic lady on television donning dazzling spandex, a tangled-thornbush of a hair perm and the smile of a sadistic nurse. A harrowing sight for an impressionable toddler, little wonder I grew up with an unhealthy aversion to exercise. And luminescent clothing. But for all the trauma Mater’s fitness regimen caused me, she must be forgiven: this was the 1980s, when exercise videos were all the rage. And thankfully, when that fad faded, my Mater, being a modern sort of gal, moved with the times on to the next Big Thing.
Not so all her contemporaries. For it seems that lurking on living room floors up and down the country, living a lonely existence on the fringes of acceptable society, are the Eighties Throwbacks: the women who cannot let go of regimented exercise, blinding work-out outfits and routines with a slight yet discernible undercurrent of perversion. They may be half-forgotten by the rest of us, but they are never really gone. For occasionally, very occasionally, when they spy an opportunity to reinstate the old formulaic, rhythmicised, en-masse ways, they break out of their living rooms and overwhelm us in the gym halls.
Which it turns out is precisely what has been happening beneath the surface of the latest fitness craze to sweep the nation: Zumba.
For Zumba, I discovered contrary to my preconceptions this week, is not a young girls’ game. To describe the median age of my classmates as ‘middle aged’ would be flattering. While there were a smattering of Mater’s vintage spread throughout the hall, clustered in the corners like delinquent teenagers, backs bowed within fluorescent tracksuits, were not a few veteran pensioners.
Our Eighties Throwback Instructress, herself no youth despite a youthful body that appeared to spend half its day working out and the other half drying out in the sun, hurried up to me before the class, visibly made anxious by the arrival of a gawky awkward twenty-something in her ranks, and enquired whether I had ever done Zumba before.
“Don’t worry” Eighties Throwback replied, worried, “It’s easy. I don’t talk though, that’s not what I do. I just do it.”
“Oh – right.” Rising perturbation. “So I copy what you do?”
“You do your own interpretation of it.”
I think she was rather missing the point of being an instructress. Not to mention grossly overestimating my ability to ‘interpret’ dance moves.
My reason, or at least the key reason, for my never having attempted Zumba before is its basis in Latin dance. For an English prude with the limbs of a giraffe and the rhythm of a deaf foal, being forced to freestyle the Salsa is on my list of worst imaginable nightmares. Even being called “Shakira!” by several men in Jordan last year could not persuade me, until now, to get my Latin groove on. I have often since pondered over what I had done to attract the ‘Shakira’ calls. Maybe I had been genuinely mistaken for a Latin Love Goddess? Maybe my hips had been swaying to South American rhythms all these years? Or maybe my Arabic’s simply not all that good?
It is a pity to have the third theory confirmed in, of all places, a public forum, when surrounded by a troop of Gran’s Grenadiers dancing their hearts out with all the confidence of people who have grown out of holding back, thus putting my paltry efforts to shame.
For I was decidedly awful at Zumba. I expended so much of my concentration on my feet that I half-forgot I also possessed arms, and allowed my hands to dangle pathetically in mid-air like a weak puppet. To a soundtrack that meandered between the cheesy and the raunchy, we were exhorted by the mute Eighties Throwback to do everything from simple side-steps and shuffles to obscene wriggle-and-self-caresses. I drew the line with the pretend bottom slap. There is a time and a place for slapping bottoms, and surrounded by a posse of tracksuit clad grannies at 10am on a Saturday morning is not it.
Indeed, I found the whole insistence on being a little bit sexual quite surplus to my fitness requirements. Does Eighties Throwback not know we’re British? We only do sexy when the survival instinct to propagate our genes briefly overrides the urge to make a cup of tea or put the bins out.
Apparently though, I was alone in not believing ourselves transformed into Latino Love-machines. The Granny Grenadiers got alarmingly enthusiastic with their hip-thrusting to ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It’, and murmurs of a cheer developed for ‘Love Shack’ – though that may be because it dates from the same year they probably bought their tracksuits.
As for Eighties Throwback’s teaching method of not speaking a word: it doesn’t work. I may be the Shakira of the Middle East but I’m not a bloody mind-reader. I had expected to be the young Pike of this Dad’s Army episode of an aerobics class, but instead I was old Jones: always one beat behind everybody else. For a first timer, not knowing what’s coming next leaves you on edge and is ultimately self-defeating, as in missing or miss-stepping so many steps I probably ended up only doing half the work-out. Which did give me the satisfaction of seeing Eighties Throwback sweat more than me, but denied me the satisfaction of feeling this whole embarrassing exhibition of uselessness had done my body any good.
Her teaching method does though at least mean the Granny Grenadiers can keep up, at their own pace (which is by no means an inconsiderable pace) for the full hour. If I have but half their pluck and energy when I’m their age, I will consider myself to have aged marvellously. And who knows, perhaps this Shakira too may still find Salsa in her seventies.