We all want to feel like J-Lo in "Shall We Dance," don't we?

I’ve often thought that if God had handed me a form prior to birth on which I could list, in order of preference, those traits, talents, and skills that I would most like to possess, I would have ranked “the ability to dance” at the top (along with “achieve a height of at least 5’5”, “sunspot-proof skin,” and “a knack for remembering the names of people I’ve just met”). I have never been athletic (the one always chosen last in gym class—enough said), but I haven’t been a couch potato, either. I like challenging my body and I’ve always had a certain awareness of what it’s capable of. So from an early age I knew that I wanted to channel whatever physical abilities I had into dance.

It started with the Louis Nunnery Ballet School, when I was nine. Alas, I really wasn’t built for ballet (read: chubby), so I lasted just long enough to graduate to toe shoes (but what a thrill that was! the pristine pink satin, the miles of ribbon that wrapped around the ankle just so, the poof of lamb’s wool…). But after that, I continued to seek out activities that would allow me to test my physical abilities. I dropped the baby fat and made cheerleader in high school—as the smallest on the squad I was always the one to climb to the top of the pyramid. I chose dance for my P.E. elective in college. And although one of the major beats in my early journalism career was fitness—requiring that I try every trendy exercise pursuit that made its way down the pike—when it came to what I gravitated toward personally, it was always some sort of dance. In my early 20s I became addicted to the Jeff Martin studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the classes were actually chorus line-like routines taught by beautiful young gay men in leg warmers; I would travel an hour and a half from my apartment in Astoria, Queens, on Saturdays and Sundays to prance around in front of those floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

Twenty-five years later I’m still dancing and just as obsessed with getting to class, but now my passion is hip-hop. Yep, you read that right: every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning this 51-year-old mother of four slips on a pair of black Capezio dance sneakers and pops and locks to the likes of Usher and J-Lo, the Black-Eyed Peas and Beyoncé. My hip-hop class is like no other dance class I’ve ever taken, and I’m not just referring to the sometimes raunchy lyrics I’m getting down to. The teacher is a charismatic African-American singer/songwriter/choreographer who once weighed more than 300 pounds and is still a big woman—not your typical exercise instructor. But Angel carries her curves with the confidence of a runway model, and moves with the agility of a Britney Spears and the grace of a prima ballerina. That alone is inspirational, but there’s more: Angel is 41 years old. That’s a full ten years younger than I am, but still could be considered over the hill by the narrow-minded.

Here’s the thing: Angel doesn’t care. Her motley group of dancers includes over-40 and -50 moms like me who, if it were P.C., would opt for hip-hop class over back-to-school night, along with unmarried women in their 30s who compare notes about the previous night’s partying before class begins, girls in their 20s—any one of whom could be my daughter—and a handful of older women who dance in the back but give it all they’ve got. Angel’s philosophy, which she voices repeatedly, is that there are no limitations on what a person can achieve or become. “I don’t care if you’re black or white, how old you are, if you have kids,” she says. “Leave all that outside. In here, you’re a dancer.”

And while I get plenty of cardio in my hip-hop class—it’s a real workout—I’ve found that the fitness aspect is the least important payoff, which is a real turnaround from my goals ten or twenty years ago, when what I wanted most out of dance class was to maintain a tiny waist and jiggle-free derriere. Now I find I’m after something more, and hip-hop delivers. Thanks to Angel’s supportive parlance, it’s practically a therapy session set to an urban dance beat, Prozac with a soundtrack, an age-defying hour in which I can indulge my lifelong love of movement, surprise myself by the things my body can still learn to do. Exercise certainly is an important aspect of staying healthy as the years bore on, but if you can find a physical pursuit that not only strengthens your body but also boosts your mental and emotional health, as I have—well, then you’re golden.

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  • RozWarren October 28, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Your essay made me want to dance!

  • Patricia Volin October 28, 2011 at 9:39 am

    So true. Maura found dancing; I found running. I started at age 45. I’ve exercised my whole life, starting with baseball at age five, then softball and basketball through college and beyond, Jazzercise, aerobics, step classes, weight training and more. All these activities have provided fitness, fun, weight control, and some have offered that little bit of competition I seem to enjoy. Running provides all these benefits as well and I like it for that, but at this point in my life it gives me an added sense of freedom and accomplishment that makes me want to do it forever. I’m really slow, but determined. This weekend I’ll be doing the Marine Corps marathon for the second time. Thirty thousand runners, and I’ll likely come in among the last one or two thousand, and dozens of other 58-year-olds will finish ahead of me. But I’m with Angel—I don’t care. A surprising added benefit: My daughter is proud of me.

  • Melissa Balmain October 28, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Another super piece!

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen October 28, 2011 at 7:14 am

    Dear Moira,

    It is Friday morning, at the end of a week that seemed to last 3 months, not 5 days. Your piece is isnspirational. You somehow find time to go to a hip-hop thrilling dance class three mornings a week with all the demands of your life. I consider myself fortunate to work out with a trainer once or twice a week these days. Time for me to find the two hours for a fun class for the body and the spirit. Thanks for the great piece.

    Dr. Pat