At the age of 49, J. Lo had to learn the sultry art of pole dancing to successfully perform her role in the movie Hustlers. A dancer her entire life, she made the feat seem effortless. The rest of us mere mortals who are of a certain age know that trying anything new – especially something as risqué as swinging from a pole – can be utterly terrifying.
As it often goes for many women, turning 40 was no picnic for me. With all the major boxes checked off (husband, house, kids, and a successful career to boot), my future seemed bleak. What was there to look forward to, really? I had achieved all the major milestones that make a person successful, right?
I always dreamed of becoming a writer. Like, professionally. I just never knew how to get there. It was all too risky: I knew most writers didn’t make a ton of money, and I didn’t know how comfortable I’d feel putting my stories out there for the whole world to judge and scrutinize. It takes nerve to share your art with other people. So, I spent the bulk of my first 40 years shelving that dream.
But something happened around that fateful birthday. In retrospect, it may have been some sort of panic attack, only it lasted months instead of just moments. All of a sudden, I went from feeling like I was in the prime of my life to feeling like I was old, ugly, and jealous of people who were younger than me – especially those without kids. I retired my two-piece bathing suits and decided I would never be sexy again. And then I read an article in some women’s health magazine about the power of endorphins, and decided maybe I should start taking Zumba classes.
When I was young, I used to dance. I loved it: ballet, hip hop, modern – I thought dancing was beautiful and sensual, a composite of graceful lines and sharp movements, and back then, it was something I was good at. I taught dance classes into my twenties, until it was time to put my degree to good use and begin building my career. Before too long, I just became an occasional dancer – one who’d come out onto the dance floor at weddings or on random nights out with my girl friends at bars or clubs. Until everyone I knew was married, or even divorced, and I had my kids, and bars and clubs were no longer a part of my routine life.
By 40, the joy of dancing had all but disappeared.
In a random online search, I found a Groupon for an adult dance studio not far from my house. I was surprised to learn that in addition to Zumba, it offered all kinds of other classes: hip hop, chair dancing, aerial hoop, and yes, pole dancing.
Not a chance, I thought. No way you’d ever catch me doing anything like that.
I bravely went in to try Zumba, and on my first day there, I was able to catch the last few minutes of the pole class before my Zumba time slot. I was floored by the people I saw, all boldly expressing their sexuality (not to mention, a good amount of skin), laughing together, filming each other, and spinning around to the loud, thumping bass. After they left, I shyly attended my Zumba class, starting in the very back of the room, trying to hide myself and my inevitable first-round mistakes from the larger group. After a few classes, I gradually moved to the middle of the pack, beginning to feel at home there. Muscle memory is an incredible thing. Moves I hadn’t done in years resurfaced. My body was shockingly capable of so much more than I gave it credit for (stupid, I know, especially considering that this was the same body that carried and then birthed two healthy children). I continued to show up a few minutes early to watch the pole class people do their thing. One day, my Zumba teacher told me I should try it. “You’d be good,” she assured me. “You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.”
“But I’m too old,” I replied. “I’m turning 40,” I whispered.
“So? Who cares?” she asked.
Huh, I thought. Suddenly, it hit me: It was just a number – and I could either embrace it or I could spend the next 40 years being an asshole and sticking my head in the sand.
I took my first pole dancing class the same week that I began applying for graduate school programs. I wanted to be a writer, so no time like the present. The risks I took in my dance classes mirrored the risks I felt I was taking in my emotional and mental space. I was accepted into Fairfield University’s MFA program by the time I was learning how to climb the pole and invert on it, and my body and mind never felt stronger.
When you pole dance, you fall – a lot. Tricks are practiced over heavy mats for this reason. It’s a lot like finishing your first novel and querying agents with it – most of the time, you face rejection. In pole, you need to fall over and over again, until one day, out of nowhere, you nail that move, and you feel like you’re flying.
One day, the agent calls and asks to represent you.
One day, the publisher says yes.
One day, you see the cover art for your debut novel.
One day, someone famous blurbs your book and says that it’s “Sassy, smart, and wicked fun.”
One day, you’re 44 and writing about the whole journey in a blog post for your website because you’re an author and authors have websites, so you have one, too.
Covid happened in March of 2020 and abruptly ended my time on the pole. I was bummed; finally, I found something that made me feel empowered, and I had to give it up as the world shut down. But, now in my second semester of graduate school, having already finished and extensively queried one manuscript only to have it not find a home, I was empowered by the thought of completing a second manuscript.
Two turned into three.
Three turned into four.
I traded in the bruises on my legs from pole injuries for a serious bout of carpal tunnel, thanks to all the writing.
And finally, in September of 2021, exactly a year ago, Elizabeth Copps called and changed my life.
I learned a lot from my time on the pole. I learned to embrace and accept my body. I learned that falling down only makes you get up stronger. But most importantly, I learned that being a writer is a lot like being a pole dancer – you have to be brave, and you show a lot of skin.
So, the next time you’re feeling down about the writing journey… just go on Groupon and challenge yourself to something really scary. Go on – I dare you. 😊
“What if I fall?” “Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”