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Middle-Aged Moves

Conquering Cuban Motion with Xena Warrior Princess

By Rochelle Lockridge

No one, and I'm pretty sure I'm not exaggerating when I say no one, could have foreseen that a year after I'd stumbled into a West Coast swing class in search of group exercise I'd be channeling Xena Warrior Princess while putting on eye makeup as I create figure eights with my hips in front of the bathroom mirror.

When I told my private instructor at the beginning of what is now my second year of studying dance that I wanted to dive deep into learning the American rhythm dances in preparation for our second performance at the upcoming showcase, I was well aware of the Cuban motion challenge I would be facing. As another instructor said when I shared with him what I was up to, "You're learning Cuban motion? Just a hint, forget everything you think you know, and start over from scratch."

My first attempts at mastering "that hip thingy" began in an early group class last summer. After class I naively asked the instructor if she could help me get started. She talked about the hours of practice she'd done in front of the mirror while brushing her teeth, then positioned my toes at eleven and one, and had me twist my body while crossing my knees in the opposite direction in a sort of back and forth motion. I practiced for a week or so, came back proudly to show how much I'd accomplished, and then she asked if I could do it in rhythm. Slow-quick-quick-slow-quick-quick. Uh, nope, back to the drawing board. Another evening I was the only one to show up for a merengue class, and the instructors graciously asked what I would like to learn. They enthusiastically indulged my request to work on Cuban motion. It was quite a site to see the one dancing with me, the other dancing next to me, holding my waist, and moving my hips to help me get the feel of the movement in my body, as together the three of us tried to step through a basic rumba box. After much giggling it was back home for more practice.

Months later, at my first private lesson specifically focused on the rhythm dances, my instructor sent me home with a list of exercises meant to loosen, and train my stereotypical, middle-aged, white woman's, Midwestern body to produce what continued to feel as foreign as could be. His knowledge from study of African-Caribbean dance, and body movement from his training for a degree in exercise science, were shared to assist me in practice. Figure eights? Oh boy, my body had almost no idea what was going on. Isolate my hips? My arms? My torso? With figure eight motions? You've got to be kidding! Reaching far back to my early college days, I fondly recalled a community education belly dance class I'd taken with body undulations that seemed somewhat similar. With at least a hint of familiarity I continued a jerky journey forward with more hours of practice. Is it obvious yet that I like to practice a lot?

When my knees started hurting from all of this Cuban motion commotion, and simply resting for a few days wasn't fixing it, I knew I had to be doing something wrong. With more guidance from my teacher I discovered I was twisting my knees too far. My knees should bend more or less straight over my feet, and I needed to engage my hips. I also learned that the pain in my knees was most likely referential pain from my calves. A new prop in the form of a hard foam roller, was added to my dance strength, and flexibility exercise regime to stretch out my calves, and thigh muscles. Amazingly, the pain subsided. However, one afternoon my eagerness to dig in and learn resulted in a painstakingly meticulous hour and a half long personal practice session in which I massively overdid it, and once again had to take time off with my trusty hard foam roller to heal my sore knees.

But I've discovered that conquering Cuban motion isn't enough when one earnestly wants to learn the rhythm dances. My instructor knows that I like to use YouTube, and other videos, alongside our lessons, to enhance the effectiveness, and economic sustainability of my private lessons. So I wasn't surprised when he said, "I want you to go to YouTube and search for —." But wait, did I hear him correctly? Power lifters? What do power lifters have to do with learning the sensual cat and mouse rumba or the flirty cha cha? While I pride myself on being a good student, and trusting my teacher to not lead me astray, at my next weekly lesson I had to confess that I didn't do my homework. I didn't see how a hulking, sweaty, grunting male was in anyway useful. He chuckled, and explained he had meant for me to watch the female power lifters. The rhythm dances require an energy, and strength that he needed me to work on. Oh, okay, so over the next week I dutifully watched a number of female power lifters exhibiting strength, and confidence while retaining their femininity. But the power lifter image still wasn't working for me. That's when Xena Warrior Princess—a popular, fictional cult TV character from the late '90s—made her grand entrance.

Turns out emulating Xena's energy, and strength are a great support, not only when I'm dancing but also when I'm doing my exercises. I summon her when I'm practicing my basic rumba, and cha cha box steps, leaning slightly forward with my cheapy $3 Walmart hula hoop placed just under my shoulder blades, holding an imaginary beach ball powerfully in my arms. And when I'm walking gracefully around the room, or clandestinely down the halls at 3M, with an iPad on my head. I invite her in when I'm walking fully upright, up and down the stairs, when I'm pretending to walk on a balance beam with my toes slightly turned out to eleven and one pushing a full grocery cart or my bright orange Arien's Deluxe 28 snowblower down the driveway. And I embody her spirit while standing tall, shoulders down and back, practicing my figure eights, brushing my teeth, and putting on eye makeup each morning. Did you know that applying eye makeup while gyrating your hips in a figure eight motion can be a great torso, and hip isolation exercise? It's great practice for your contra-body movement, especially when you are using your right hand to paint your left eye. Invoke your own inner warrior princess, and give it a try.

With the infamous Xena Warrior Princess by my side, my journey toward conquering Cuban motion, and mastering the American rhythm dances continue.

Surprisingly, at least to me, my Cuban motion quest has spilled over into other dance styles, and my life in general. That heretofore-elusive West Coast swing leg action? It magically appeared one day. I am walking differently, and am more at ease in my body—my body flowing as my hips open up, and become engaged. I feel more confident at home, and at work. Most importantly, my inner Xena encourages me to express all of who I am in the world, that I am a strong, powerful, sensuous woman. I belong here.