A staff writer seeks connection in Dodge Fitness classes.
By Madison Hu
In her one woman show “Kate,” Kate Berlant jokes that the masks we wear as individuals in society are rarely, but inevitably, torn off in moments of unexpected physical strife: sickly bent over a sink/toilet/some other unlucky vessel, surrounded by strangers, letting all the day (or night’s) wrong things out, silently begging for mercy, primal and sweaty, entirely human and unforgivingly vulnerable.
In this particular moment, Kate says, we are experiencing the rarity of being our unencumbered, unmasked selves in front of others.
This semester, I have been making use of the Dodge Fitness Class Pass and would like to define my latest personal experience of such mask-tugging. I spend every Tuesday and Thursday night in Zumba classes, amateurly shaking my hips and flipping my hair, desperately trying to keep up with a routine within the voyeuristic panopticon that is the Dodge Gym Aerobics Room 3, where I am not only fully visible to my peers stationed outside of the glass, but also to my peers within. My fellow Zumba dancers include, but are not limited to: former classmates, future classmates, that one person I always see in the dining hall, people I had in a small seminar with that I say “hi” to on college walk for a month after the seminar ends but never again, professors I love, professors I don’t love, professors I don’t know yet but will know next semester when placed in their eight-person seminar, graduate students who could be my TA, graduate students who will teach me next semester when placed in their eight-person seminar, and other Morningside Heights residents I am bound to see everywhere.
My junior spring has been devoid of the regular group of friends who know me wholly and vulnerably; most all are studying abroad. Their locations on Find my Friends dot the globe, and their absence has pushed me into looking for that familiar interpersonal comfort through a new medium.
And so, I spend my time in the depths of Dodge, where I am both incredibly visible and wholly vulnerable, my mask ripped completely off in one foul, voluntary swoop.
Just below the thunderous rumble of the Dodge Gym track runners, above what may as well be the center of the earth (the courts where you can watch your friends’ intramural teams compete), and through the looking-glass wall of windows flanked with Doric columns (that are themselves flanked by athletic blue wall padding) is the fluorescently-lit, glossily laminated workout space that is Aerobics Room 3.
It is to this place that I descend biweekly, like clockwork. I check in with a student on an iPad sitting at a folding table, and duck into my safe corner in the back left of the room, where I can clearly see the instructor and myself in the mirror, but still be neatly tucked behind a few rows of people. I then attempt to slyly but always awkwardly pull my sweats off the wide rubber sole of my seven year old Nikes, widening the band to touch as little of the bottom of the shoe as possible. I lay my jacket on the pile of yoga mats behind me and balance my water bottle on the base of one of the punching bag men that line the walls.
The space, one-half of which is covered in reflective or transparent surface, is voyeuristic not only in build, but in intrinsic nature. Here, I am on display to those guaranteed to be in my close vicinity for as long as I am at this school—here, my mask-less self assumes a unique proximity to most every type of person in the university community, ranging from professors to other undergraduates to graduate students to staff.
In this room, I observe my familiar fellow Zumba dancers—with whom I’ve developed parasocial relationships due to their proximity to my most vulnerable self-—prepare: the couple who stands at the front and knows every move, whom I imagine met in this class and had a chance moment of connection as they walked out together, have a conversation solely through the mirror; the gaggle of professors who stand in the right corner, not shying away from dancing their heart out around their potential students, get in the zone, stretch, breathe; the one person in the front center who is very obviously a trained salsa dancer scrolls on her phone, and I imagine her one day teaching our class like our instructor, who told me about her dance background and the fact that the Zumba licensing takes a day, but the fitness license takes year. Maybe the others in the class feel as vulnerable as I do, maybe they don’t, but there’s a sort of familiarity, a beauty to showing up to class and maintaining relative anonymity, engaging in a mutually understood contract that we all engage with for some individual reason.
I measure my wingspan, making sure I won’t smack anything during my work out because that would be embarrassing, and then get to work, perfecting the Zumba routine I’ve spent all semester memorizing. I move with my class, creating a sort of confused amoeba-like structure that’s constantly brushing close to processes of mitosis, as I continuously get my lefts and rights mixed up. I let myself dance like—and kind of because—it feels like everyone’s watching.
After an hour of dancing the same familiar routine to the same familiar remix of music, with the same familiar group of people, I pull my sweats back on, hang my jacket on my forearm, precariously balance my water bottle in my free hand, and thank Celeste for another great class. Wholly familiar and vulnerable, I move with the rest of my class out of Aerobics Room 3, up the stairs, and out of Dodge. Our masks harden as we move into the cold air, but we rest assured that they will come off again next Tuesday.