The gift of mobility

By Caitlin Kelly

L1000282
Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland — June 2015

Maybe you just walked to work or enjoyed a bike ride or went dancing last night.

Maybe you’re training for a marathon or triathlon — or happy to race with your dog(s) along a trail.

Today’s the day I celebrate my body’s rebirth to full mobility – on Feb. 6, 2012, I was wheeled into an operating room to have my left hip replaced.

caiti flag

I was young for the surgery, as most people have it in their 60s or beyond; my 86 year old father only had his hip done in May of 2015.

I was very fearful, (I’d already had 3 prior orthopedic surgeries, [both knees, right shoulder] within the decade, all of which had gone well), and had put the operation off for more than two years. I was sick to death of surgeries and rehab and doctors and the whole thing.

And, as someone who’s wholly self-employed with a fluctuating income, I also had to fund a month off and the cost of co-pays for physical therapy rehab.

02 full floor
Another beloved activity — this is Daybreaker — a 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. regular dance party in Manhattan

Those two years of avoidance, though, were crazy.

The arthritis in my left hip had required a course of steroids — whose side effects, (called avascular necrosis), instead destroyed my hip bone.

The resulting pain was 24/7 and exhausting. It made every step I took painful; even crossing a room was tiring.

Buying groceries in the enormous stores here in the suburbs of New York was a misery. Museum visits became marathons and I carried painkillers with me everywhere.

By the fall of 2010, in desperation, I went on crutches for three months just for a brief respite from pain. I bought a pair off the Internet, the short kind typically associated with long-term disability (think of FDR photos). Heaven!

With renewed energy and the ability to move more safely, painlessly and quickly, I went to the movies and theater, (scooching sideways across those narrow aisles), and even flew to Las Vegas to address a conference there.

IMG_20150111_134324002_HDR
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Yet another event my new hip allowed me to experience.

By December of 2011, I was just too worn out from pain and booked the operation.

Three days before it, I was a featured speaker at — of all things — a conference of liquor store retailers in New Orleans, wandering that city’s streets with a limp so pronounced I walked like a drunken sailor. I’d been invited as a result of my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” to share my research into low-wage labor.

Sheer luck brought me that gig — and earned me $6,500, enough to take time off to just rest, rehab and recover.

A highly active person — I walk, cycle, dance, play softball, ice skate, ski and do a variety of other sports — I feared that a poor surgical result would mean the end to my athletic life. Or that my doctor would utter the dreaded word “moderate”, as a verb.

Not in my vocabulary!

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid, March 2014

Here’s my cover story from Arthritis Today about that life pre-surgery. I like the photos they took, but you can how heavy I got because it hurt so much to exercise.

Today I take jazz dance  class twice a week, one of them so vigorous I leave sweat puddles on the floor, and enjoy full range of motion. (OK, I don’t do the splits anymore.)

I also live in an apartment building filled with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, many of whom can now only ambulate safely using a cane or walker.

It’s sobering and instructive to see what aging, (and/or a poorly done surgery), can do to our blessed ability to run, dance, jump and simply enjoy the grace and power of our bodies.

Never take it for granted!

Dancing with 800 strangers at 7 a.m? It’s Daybreaker!

By Caitlin Kelly

all photos: Jose R. Lopez
all photos: Jose R. Lopez

Seriously?

Hell, yes!

It’s a thing that started in Europe.

Dancing before work?

Dancing without drugs or alcohol?

Dancing wearing workout clothes?

It’s a radical notion — a club scene without the usual bullshit dramas of standing in line, wearing the wrong clothes or paying way too much money for drinks you don’t want.

Here’s a bemused story about it from June 2014, when 400 people showed up:

What I found was an amiable crowd of corporate employees and artists, mostly in their 20s; they seemed appreciative of the multiple chaste offerings, including massages, pre-dancing yoga and a “Free Haikus” corner, where a pair of poets who call themselves the Haiku Guys hammered out verses on attendees’ topics of choice. At 7, the atmosphere felt a bit awkward, and the dancing was tentative, but the room soon became rowdy and enjoyable.

“You get some exercise in, you feel great physically, and it’s an incredible dance party,” said Matthew Brimer, 27, a co-founder of Daybreaker. “Dance culture and underground music tends to be boxed in to this idea that you need alcohol or drugs to enjoy. What we’re trying to say is that there’s a whole world of creative experience and dance, music and art.”

And, more recently:

Two friends in New York — Radha Agrawal, 36, the founder of Super Sprowtz, a children’s nutrition company, and Matthew Brimer, 28, a founder of the adult-education school General Assembly — came up with the concept two years ago over late-night falafel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“We were talking about how the morning space in general is pretty boring, people have their routines and that’s about it, and the night-life scene in New York is so dark and synthetic and not community driven,” Mr. Brimer said over the phone. “You know when you leave a nightclub and feel depleted? We wanted to turn that concept on its head.”

Daybreaker holds regular events in not only San Francisco (in places like the Yerba Buena Center and Supperclub), but also in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, London and São Paulo, Brazil. The cost: generally $20 to $40 a person, depending on whether you opt into predance party yoga or not.

This week, on a cold, gray Manhattan Wednesday morning, Jose and I — who are long past our 20s — got up at 6:30 after staying at a friend’s apartment. A bagel and some coffee and a cab ride over to the Highline Ballroom, on the far west side of the city.

Acrobats, too!
Acrobats, too!

We’d paid $25 per person ahead of time; you have to be on a list to know when and where the next one is being held.

I got my hand stamped with Daybreaker’s symbol — a stylized rising sun.

The cavernous space was filled with a yoga class finishing up. The floor cleared and it was our time.

Nothing makes me happier than dancing and I’ve missed it terribly.

So for the next two hours, surrounded by 700+ other happy people, I danced; I think I sat down for about 10 minutes.

The mood felt oddly innocent, joyous, free — for once — of the chronic and terminal status anxiety that infects most of us who live and work here.

Very not New York.

It felt like one big playground, the kind without bullies or cold wet cement onto which you’d probably fall.

 A man playing electric violin came through the crowd.

A man played a didgeridoo from one corner of the stage.

03 digeradoo

The bravest came and danced in the middle of the stage while the female DJ, in from L.A., spun her tunes.

A pair of very large vegetables appeared — apparently a broccoli and a celery, although one looked more like okra to me — guys or women inside huge costumes.

It was sweaty and frenetic like any club scene, but, blessedly, never weird or scary.

People caught Jose’s eye, noticed his age and gray hair, and smiled. I saw perhaps a dozen people our age.

Some people wore work clothes and many began streaming out around 8:30 as they headed off to their office jobs; it ends at 9:00 a.m.

To close, a young man performed a terrific rap poem about the New York subway — and how we so studiously ignore one another, eyes safely down or staring down the tunnel waiting for the train, instead of potentially connecting.

Then it ended as we all sat on the floor and, handed this card, all read aloud a segment of this lovely poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson — written in 1833 and published in 1842.

We read it quietly, in unison, a sort of secular prayer, the 21st century sweetly colliding with the 19th, read by 20-year-olds in gold spandex shorts and rainbow platform shoes.

IMG_20150410_094236

Then, exhausted, drenched, ablaze with endorphins, we scattered back into the city and out into our day.

It’s time to shake your tailfeather!

By Caitlin Kelly

Rock the Casbah
Rock the Casbah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a dancing fool.

I take two dance classes (so far) a week, jazz and modern. This fall I’m adding a third one, studying something I’ve wanted to try for decades — choreography.

They’re my happiest three hours of the week — 90 exhausting minutes each. I come home sore, weary and happy.

There, we use a totally different vocabulary — spins, leaps, turns, pirouettes, chasses, contractions — without saying a word. It’s a blessed break from the tyranny of diction. There, our arms and legs do the talking, our heads and shoulders and neck twisting and bending, our wrists to the floor, our toes to the ceiling.

Two of my classmates are also self-employed writers, happy to flee our daily isolation, and the computer and our clients. In one recent class, our teacher had us take turns improvising (shriek) and the rest of us had to follow. It was both terrifying and exhiliarating to make it up on the fly and see what spontaneously erupted when we just…riff.

Not surprisingly, we all moved very differently.

Our teacher stopped to correct us: “Stop thinking! I can see you planning every movement. Keep going. Keep moving. Just…do it!”

I loved her demand that we just dance.

So much of our lives is dictated by others’ rhythms: rushing for the subway car or elevator before the doors slam shut; answering a call or email or text rightaway!; feeding a hungry baby over and over; walking the dog several times a day; having your keystrokes counted by an invisible boss.

We also need to dance to our own tunes.

I have friends addicted to the tango, to tap, to ballet, to swing. I’ve been dancing, and taking lessons, since I was young and hoped against hope to become (like many little girls) a ballerina.

But I didn’t have the skills or the right body shape. I still took five dance classes a week in my 20s, three ballet, two jazz.

dance
dance (Photo credit: Dino ahmad ali)

Even as my left hip was destroyed by arthritis and steroids to heal the inflammation, I kept taking class, my movements shrinking each month as the pain increased. Now, with my new hip, my battements look like the real thing once more.

And even with classmates half or even a third my age, and 50 pounds lighter, I do just fine.

But it’s not just dance class. It’s dancing, anywhere, any time.

If there’s a Rolling Stones album nearby, clear the floor, kids! Same for Stevie Wonder. If it’s “My Sharona” or “Rock The Casbah”….move!

Michael Jackson performing The Way You Make Me...
Michael Jackson performing The Way You Make Me Feel in 1988 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an older list of great dance tunes, from The Telegraph.

And a newer list of 25 from Buzzfeed, with some of my favorites like “You Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer or “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.

Here are some amazing images of dancers in everyday, non-performance or classroom spots — Pennsylvania Avenue, shoveling gravel in pointe shoes, exulting in a Barnes and Noble, a post-shopping battement.

Here’s a great recent post, chosen by Freshly Pressed, about the body as narrative:

before we learn how to use verbal language as our primary tool of conscious expression, we have our bodies and nothing else. Even after we have learned to use our words, we continue use our bodies as a means of expression until our last breath, even if we don’t know it. The human form is fundamental to our expression, and it will always tell a story, no matter how simple or complex, whether we want it to or not. So it is no wonder dancing predates almost every form of storytelling mankind has devised. It’s a part of who we are. It’s ingrained in our DNA, and yet so many men in the modern world deny it, brand it as feminine.

Do you love to dance?

What are some of your go-to tunes?

Dance as though no one were watching

By Caitlin Kelly

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.
A man and a woman performing a modern dance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The studio is huge — maybe 30 feet by 30 feet. One wall is mirror, one is glass, facing the parking lot. Two large fans create a cross-breeze. There is no clock.

The others are young, slim, lithe, their bodies able to do the most unlikely things with ease. There are three other women — a girl of maybe 15, one perhaps the same and one who might be in her 30s. There are two men, loose and easy in their skins, with the distinctive elegance of the dancer, both students at the University of Arizona.

Then there’s me.

I stand at the back, feeling lumpy and old in my black leggings and T-shirt, a bandana around my forehead to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes. I’m wearing my black cotton jazz shoes, and have dropped into an advanced jazz class.

Madness!

Actually, it turns out just fine. The instructor is Taylor, a tall blond whose manner is comfortable and helpful, and we start out by warming up with stretches, the opposite of what we do in my Monday morning jazz class at home. Then on to push-ups and ab work. I keep waiting for us to start the center barre — the ballet routine we normally do (battements, ronds de jambes, tendues, plies, degages, etc.) — but we never do.

Instead, to my nervous delight, we are given a routine to memorize and perform, to an aching and melancholy song by Florence and the Machine. It doesn’t feel like jazz and it doesn’t feel like ballet. It feels more like modern dance, which I’ve never studied. But in I plunge, twisting and rolling and shaking my shoulders. Taylor uses the floor a lot, demanding rolls and twists and a sudden arching of our backs with our heads as pivot point.

No problem.

It is a new feeling, to simply enjoy my body for all the things it still can do, quickly, with precision, carving forms in the air on the beat. In the old days, for decades, I would hate it for all that it cannot do, for the too-big bum or not-high-enough arches or muscular forearms that resemble those of a 18th-century laundress.

Now, after years of agony and limping and crutches, I am just so thrilled to have a functioning body that can glide and leap and twist and pivot and stretch at will.

Dance is a language, a vocabulary of movement. What a delicious relief to shrug off the burden of verbal expression! Here I speak with a flick of my hands or a roll of my head or an extension of my leg, foot pointed or flexed flat.

It is such a rare joy to move with grace and speed and power, not merely using my body-as-tool in quotidian tasks, to climb stairs or drive a car or load a dishwasher.

The other students are lovely to watch, especially the younger girl who is quick, precise and has astonishing technique.

Then we’re given four pieces of music with which to improvise. I’ve never had that chance, and here among others of tremendous training and exquisite line. Their arabesques are gorgeous, mine not nearly so much.

I could freeze with fear, knowing how beautiful and skilled they all are. I’m the interloper, the one with the new(ish) replacement hip I’m still a little protective of.

But dance we do, each in our separate bubble, and it’s lovely to make it up in the instant of hearing a note or a phrase. My hands and feet and arms and legs — having studied ballet from the age of 12 — know what to do without thought. I don’t plan or think or fuss or wonder.

Like grass or corn in a breeze, I simply move.

Untethered by expectation, for once, I simply fly free.

We’re asked to use the room: walls, floor, ceiling, mirror. There’s not a lot to choose from! I crouch into the corner, bounce off a wall (that seems familiar!) and watch the others roll and slide. Then, finally, partnering, which I shy away from, truly feeling odd woman out.

The men are simply amazing to watch, never not touching, bending and twisting and crouching and lifting. Even the teacher is moved by their seamlessness.

We’re done.

I drive off into the darkness, grinning.

 

What Billie Jean King And I Have In Common

The Tin Man. Poster for Fred R. Hamlin's music...
He's a cutie. But you don't want to feel this stiff, ever! Image via Wikipedia

Not what you think, smarties. Not tennis. Not sexual orientation.

OA. That’s osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease that grinds away your cartilage and bone and makes it really painful to walk, dance, lift, carry and just get on with life.

So the Arthritis Foundation is running a new campaign to get the arthritic among us — all 50 million of us! — to keep moving.

It’s a little bizarre, but true, that the more you hurt (and you do!), the more you need to get moving, as often and vigorously as possible, to lessen your pain. After only three or four days of inactivity, I feel like the Tin Man, the pain in my left hip so excruciating I wake up at 3:00 a.m. to gulp down a painkiller.

I recently wrote an essay about my addiction to exercise to stay flexible, fight weight gain and avoid depression from my constant arthritis pain for Arthritis Today. It has not yet appeared; I’ll link to it when it does.

Do you have a physical disability or chronic issue that makes your life tougher?

How do you deal with it?

Jazz Dance = Joy!

Billy Elliot the Musical
Image via Wikipedia

When I tell people I take a jazz dance class — while limping with every step — they think I’m nuts.

Which may well be true!

I’ve been dancing in classrooms, (and even for a week on the stage at Lincoln Center, as an extra), since I was a little girl who, like many, dreamed of becoming a ballerina.

As if.

I auditioned several times for the National Ballet School, a highly selective process that anyone who’s ever watched Billy Elliot might appreciate.

Unlike Billy, I didn’t make the cut, being told, firmly, I had the “wrong body” for ballet. Um…it’s the only one I have! Ballet is severely unforgiving in its demands of a highly specific body type: high arches, terrific turnout, a long waist, tiny hips and breasts (that must remain so after puberty.)

So I added jazz dance to ballet in my 20s, taking five classes a week. If you’ve ever watched a musical live or on film, you’ve felt the infectious joy of jazz dance — edgy, quick, sexy, playful.

I only take one class a week right now, as it’s all my wretched left hip will allow. And my battements, (kicks that should skim my shoulders or at least get that high), look more like degages at this point. But still, I can do a lot more than any physician would think (or suggest) and the benefits are many:

I’m sweat-drenched within 15 minutes.

I loathe” exercise” and machines but have to lose weight and stay strong somehow.

There’s a wide range of body type in my small class, mostly women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Several of us are definitely larger than others, yet all of us move with grace and style, our feet and hands able to flash and flicker in time with the music, the rhythm as much a part of us as our eye color.

People are glad to see me there, encourage whatever progress I make, and miss me when I’m absent for a while.

Great music!

A huge gym flooded with light all to ourselves.

Twenty minutes of stretching, something it’s too easy to overlook when doing other forms of exercise.

A link to my athletic, carefree past.

A weekly reminder that, whatever my current physical limitations, they’re not 100 percent. That reminder inspires me out of the studio as well.

Here, my aging and injured body is still strong, flexible and graceful — not just damaged and painful. Women in an era that loathes anyone female over a size 6 who is not highly decorative, (that’s just about any era of the 21st and 20th centuries for North Americans!), need a place where their bodies are useful to themselves, a source of joy and power, not just something their husbands, children and/or employers rely on.

We use our head, shoulders, feet and arms, often independently, for beauty and pleasure — not for mere locomotion or other basic functions.

It’s what we do with our muscles and limbs — not just the size or shape of our hips and breasts — that matters here.

Movement! There is much we can express through our bodies. What a blessed respite from words.

Here’s a recent review of a book about one of the greatest jazz dancers ever, Fred Astaire.

What sport or physical activity brings you joy?

The Diet: Week One, In Which I Enter A Bakery Just For A Tantalizing Sniff

Silhouettes and waist circumferences represent...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve never dieted. Never wanted to. The doctor ordered it and for two weeks I have a tightly edited list of foods I am allowed to eat.

No starches (including carrots, sweet potatoes, corn); sugar or sweetening of any sort; no fruit in any form; no rice, pasta or any type of bread. It will modify only slightly over the next six weeks.

Here’s the challenge. If you stay home, and never go out, and are OK with that hermit-like existence, it’s workable as you calibrate every single mouthful, literally, with a set of measuring spoons and measuring cup. Such a fun start to a meal!

If you actually venture into the real world of restaurants and cafes and mass-marketed meals — I just spent two days in Boston — good luck! Salad in a campus cafeteria offered “lite” dressing, filled with high fructose corn syrup (a sweetener) and no bottles of oil and vinegar to substitute. Breakfast in the train station meant grilling the poor people at Cosi whether their eggs were real or powdered; they didn’t know, which was not reassuring. I ate the contents of their wraps without the forbidden wraps.

You wander about in a haze of permanent hunger, food glimmering and glistening all around you like some mirage in a distant oasis: donuts, mountains of muffins, enormous cups of fresh orange juice, a cool, amber glass of beer enjoyed by the guy sitting beside you at the bar as you sip your….Diet Coke.

You start to count the very few people who are not overweight or even morbidly obese, and notice how rare they are, anywhere. Some of them look like the Michelin Man, a belt cruelly tightened across their midriff as if it were a torture device. You wonder if they even have a bossy/caring physician or if their doctor is unkind or unhelpful or has just given up on them.

Your day, if you love to cook and eat and drink and plan the night’s dinner, has lost its focus as food and drink as a source of pleasure are erased. I don’t want a lifetime where food becomes mere fuel, every single calorie a dreaded threat to my existence. Today’s New York Post featured a story about mid-life women, several of them boasting how they are hungry all the time thanks to their minimal food intake — but look hot.

I’ll take tepid and happy…The “reward” for losing weight, the dietitian told me, is…even less food! Tinier portions, because my body will need fewer calories.

This is motivating?

I start physical therapy tomorrow, 45 minutes of pool aerobics to loosen and strengthen my arthritic left hip, which I am assured — and logic would agree — will hasten weight loss by burning more calories.

I am counting the days until I am deemed strong enough once more to get out on my bike, work up a sweat in the sunshine and get back to my Saturday morning softball game. (Two weeks ago, I could barely walk across the room because of the hip pain, which oral steroids have mostly relieved. A hip replacement is in my future, but I am hoping to postpone it for a few years, at best.)

By then, I might gnaw on my glove. Hey, it’s protein.