A Quick Walk Across the Low Beam
My foray into the world of gymnastics.
My first day in gymnastics class was everything I could have dreamed of. I got to run in circles with the other kids, leaping over brightly-colored obstacles. I walked along a narrow beam with my toes pointed. There was even a foam pit I was allowed to jump into.
In my head, I was already at the Olympics, standing on the highest podium with a medal the size of a cinnamon bun dangling from my neck. The entire world would bow down in acknowledgment of my athletic prowess and perfect Tkachev Salto.
Even though I was only sixish. Even thought I had a nasty habit of running full speed through screen doors and a tendency to sprain my ankle every other week.
I was sure the grace hidden deep within me would eventually burst out, resulting in fame and fortune on the international stage.
I was one of those brassy demons commonly compared to the Energizer bunny. You know the type. The kind of kid that makes a hiking trail five times longer, running back and forth and back and forth and back again. I talked a lot and I demanded a lot of attention.
My parents, desperate for relief, enrolled me in gymnastics.
It’s possible their motivations were noble. Perhaps they wanted to increase my coordination or teach me important lessons about teamwork. Maybe they thought I’d be good at it? They knew I was fascinated by the gymnasts on tv, watching closely as they flipped and flew through the air.
Probably they were trying to teach me a little discipline or attempting to burn me out so I’d stop running up the stairs, then sliding down on my butt and crashing into the kitchen table.
Things worked out alright. I had a great time in class! I built up an impressive collection of leotards. I worked “gymnast” into my identity with remarkable ease, dropping it into conversations like it was the equivalent to “royal princess” or “superhero”. I practiced my somersaults and handstands on the front lawn the way all kids enrolled in gymnastics classes are contractually required to do.
But the thing about gymnastics classes is, as you go along, things can get intense. It’s not exactly finger painting.
For example, if a six year old decides they want to be a writer, they have at least thirty years before they need to get serious about publishing anything good. But most Olympic-level female gymnasts are sixteen or a little older. Which meant I only had ten years to get good. By the age of twenty, I’d be an ancient crone too wizened to leave the house, let alone perform a perfect switch split.
There wasn’t any time to waste.
So classes got tougher and some of the teachers got a little meaner. I sprained my ankles a few more times. Broke the left one once. Nevermind. Kids break bones. It’s normal. I worked hard to be the good kid, the strong kid, the graceful kid. I tried to impress my teachers. I did what they said. And I liked it.
But I still remember.
There’s a point in most kids’ lives when “no” is their favorite word. They’re in awe of its power and test it out at every chance.
“Time to brush your teeth!”
“Could you stop singing in the produce aisle?”
“Do you want to stop watching tv and come to the dinner table?”
But, with time, kids learn that their status in the social sphere is pretty low and, while their parents might or might not feel like considering their feelings, “no” can be drained of its power at any moment.
Maybe a kid wants to wear their shoes and maybe they don’t, but those shoes are going on their feet regardless.
And teachers hold even more power. Teachers are mysterious and tall beings bestowed with the solemn strength of authority. Kids don’t get to say “no” to teachers. At least, not when I was little. Not when I was in gymnastics. Gymnastics classes didn’t have a lot of room for “no”.
And that’s how I found myself crying at the one place that made me special, the place where I got to be active and graceful. Where I’d built up a little dream for myself.
There’s this thing you do in gymnastics called “working on your splits”. It’s a gradual process of stretching your muscles out further and further until one day you can miraculously sit with both legs perfectly extended in both directions like a dancer or a person being tortured for witchcraft in medieval Europe.
We worked on this at each practice. Typically we’d sit facing a step, one leg out to each side, trying to inch forward with our pelvises. Bit by bit. Day by day. I wasn’t there, but I was improving.
Until the day one of my teachers decided to help me out.
She put one hand on my thigh and one hand on my back. I was gripped by the wrongness of this, the precarious position in which I found myself and how much it was about to hurt.
But I didn’t say “no”.
She slammed my body forward into a perfect split.
If no one has ever forced you into the splits… well, I don’t recommend it.
And somewhere between the tears, I knew it wasn’t right. My body wasn’t supposed to do this.
At the time, I expected the teacher was annoyed by me. I wasn’t tough like a gynmast. I was just a little kid.
I didn’t quit until later. Actually, they sort of nudged me out. Not for crying, but because I was growing faster than Alice after a strong swig of Drink Me. Gymnasts are supposed to be compact and fun-sized. I was turning out more Brobdingnag than Lilliputian.
Which was okay, because by then my dreams of Olympic gold had been supplanted by my new goal of winning the Kentucky Derby. (I also really wanted to be Robin Hood, but that seemed less realistic.)
So, yeah. This is just a story of something that happened to me one time when I was young. One memory out of a million. I don’t regret going to gymnastics classes and I don’t regret leaving when the time came. But I haven’t forgotten how it feels to be so little, so eager to please, and have someone with power over me cause me pain. To have no resource but tears.
That really rearranges the world.
Many years later, when I began teaching dance, I tried not to forget. By that time I knew forcing splits wasn’t great for the human body, but, even if the concept had been sold to me with a big shiny bow of approval, I don’t think I would have done it.
You get tall and you get big and you forget how the world feels from a kid’s perspective. Once upon a time, there was your world and there was the whole world that went on above your head. And it’s hard to say “no” sometimes to that world above your head. Even if you’re a crazy, rambunctious demon of a child like I was.
Especially in gymnastics, a universe that prizes discipline, respect and obedience. You obey. Those are the rules.
Then when the big stuff happens, the scary stuff, people wonder why there wasn’t a “no”. They don’t realize that “no” is also a muscle. Without strengthening, without training, it isn’t always there when you need it.