My second day of taking gymnastics, I broke my ankle, giving me an obstinate limp that at times, ails me today. But that didn’t stop me from doing cartwheels and splits, resting my legs against the chill of the dewy grass, delighting in the dampness that sent shivers through my body. It also didn’t hinder me from doing backbend after backbend, peering at the summer sun though the lattice of leaves under the shade of the Mulberry tree in my yard. I never took a dance class, yet every few months, my friends and I put on a dance show for the neighborhood. We charged a quarter for admission and five cents for a popcorn and a lemonade. We stayed outside and played, in the rain, the snow and the sun. Nightime was reserved for homework and baths and an episode of Happy Days, or Charlie’s Angels if we were good. All of us neighborhood kids were skinny and unkempt because we were so active, and the term “lazy day” was not a vernacular in our vocabulary.
Volunteering at my children’s school, I’ve witnessed how little strength and stamina American kids have today. Many can’t even touch their toes. Yes, they play organized sports and some have phys ed as part of their curriculum, but outside of that, there isn’t much initiative for them to have unstructured physical play. I happen to live in a neighborhood where one can always hear the monotonous thwack of a basketball against the macadam and there are always kids riding bikes and scooters in the street. In many places throughout the country though, that’s a rare sight to see.
Yesterday, I had an orientation to teach a JAM fitness class to a group of fourth graders. Unlike a structured dance class, JAM is all about movement and increasing stamina, and if you get the dance steps wrong, so be it. What’s most important is that you’re active and having fun. I watched in awe as my friend, Ilean lead a group of ten year olds through what most would deem a moderate fitness class, yet after the first routine, as Ilean was just getting started, many of these kids were tired. Some were sitting down, others were out of breath and that was just from the warmup. Putting it mildly, these kids didn't have the endurance, but they did have the determination. It wasn't necessarily because they ate unhealthy or spent hours in front of video games. They weren't overweight or out of shape. They just didn't spend their childhoods climbing trees or exploring nature's playground for a variety of reasons. But these kids were tough and tenacious and weren't yet ready to give up.
Ilean put on some top pop hits and the excitement in these kids was roused. They moved their bodies; their hips, their arms, their heads in what they had probably once thought were impossible positions. And they were laughing. Some even jumped onto the stage and let loose with a freedom they could only incur by mentally storing away the idea that they had to be perfect, that they had to do it right. I showed some of the more inflexible girls in the class how to modify their moves and to look within themselves for their own style. They didn’t have to keep up with the more agile girls in front of them. All they had to do was keep in motion. It was an inspiring moment for all, and I could see the gratification on my friend’s face as she led them through the dance.
In the middle of class, one of the teachers came up to me and pointed out a petite girl in the front row. She told me of how this young beauty had to be medicated in order to make it throughout the day without doing cartwheels in class. The doctors diagnosed her as having ADHD, yet her focus on Ilean was intense. She would watch with great concentration as Ilean showed the class the steps, then mimic them to perfection. “Look at her,” the teacher pointed out. “She loves this. She was born to dance. But unfortunately, her family doesn’t have the means to help her pursue it.” I looked around me and noticed that most all these children probably had the same dilemma.
This experience, this one special hour on a typical Monday morning gives these children a glimpse of the fun and freedom they can experience by keeping their bodies moving. It’s a great lesson for them to learn that exercise doesn’t need to be tedious and that to exert themselves, they don’t have to follow rigid rules. They may not have the flexibility just yet to be able to touch their toes, but I have no doubt in a few months time, that will come. Their broad smiles, the way they lifted their heads as they belted out the lyrics to Alicia Keys proved that during this one hour of JAM, they were able to experience a taste of the childhood I remember so fondly. Hopefully, this will become a fond memory for them as well, one they will carry with them through their lives as an incentive to be healthy.