Splashpoint. Monday Morning, 10am. Lauren briskly swags in and sets up, no nonsense. Smiles at us all, asks us if we’re ready. Gets the music blasting and we all follow her lead and raise our fists, bounce on our toes, try to zone in. Lauren’s smile never drops and her energy is extraordinary. She’s a brash blonde Essex woman a million miles from middle-class white femininity, that idealised fragile feminine which screams for protection. Lauren owns the place and encourages us to feel powerful, uplifted, survivors.
Tuesday, 11am. Dave (a martial arts champion for real) grins, bounces lightly on his toes, kicks higher than his head and makes the thunder kick look graceful. Dave always breaks the moves down carefully to teach us and warns against shortcuts. Some tracks have what feels like 1001 high -knees: “Knees for breakfast, knees for lunch and knees for dinner” laughs Dave, “Keep going, if you want those abs”.
Friday, 10am. Wendy rushes in, a flurry of bag, headphones, class-list. As a busy working parent, she’s mildly chaotic but super-engaging. Wendy’s home-space fitness is dance, and it shows in her obsession with getting music and speakers right and also in her leadership style. When we flag, she gathers us around in a motivation-circle, sweating and panting as much as we are – she’s with us, part of the same struggle. If you’re moving without conviction, she’ll come right up in your face, smile, and offer you a few hefty uppercuts to mimic.
First comes the call to action – warm-up – when we do slow tempo versions of the moves which will come later and be aggregated into ‘combos’, foreshadowing what’s to come.
With Track 2, the tempo shifts up and we get intimations of the challenge ahead as we begin to move, enjoying the music. This is Fun – Bring it on! Show us the moves and let’s do this!
Track 3 sees us right in the thick of it now – sweat is running, heart is pumping. There’s no turning back – we’re on that journey now, committed to it. We smile at each other: these combos are fun, this music is great.
When Track 4 starts, we’re flagging a bit: this is a struggle, actually. “Take a drink and pull back a little, but keep moving”, we’re told. Right after that small pause for water and air, a fiendishly tough and high-tempo track pounces on us. We reprise our warm-up moves: but now at triple-speed and choreographed into combos that challenge those of us who lack coordination. No smiling at each other now, just focus and concentration on getting it right and keeping up.
By Track 5, we’ve reached the space of, ‘Oh God, what is this hellish torture’? With no way out … And yet our energy rises and commitment firms up, even as the trainers ask us for more. In exchange, they offer us a shift in focus. Fresher body parts allow the burning ones to pull back. If Track 4 was all legs and kicks, Track 5 will be shoulders and arms. We trust the trainers: they’re pushing us but not breaking us.
Another small drink and sweat-wipe – “Keep moving!” and we’re on into Track 6. The trainers are working hard now – humour, yells, encouragement. OK, let’s get a grip and keep this going. Determined, we push into it, pulling out physical and mental strength and realising that our limits are higher and our capacities more than we’d imagined. Some interesting choreo combos appear, to engage our minds and distract us from thoughts of weariness. Again, we exchange smiles – wry ones this time – as we struggle to master the moves. Sometimes a small freestyle 10-second beat comes in here, opening space for humour and playfulness and for trainers to show their personality, warming them to us.
Track 7 leads to thoughts that it must be nearly over now (sneaky peek at the clock). What? Is that all? It’s about to get worse and apparently I need to pull something more out of myself when I thought I’d already given it all. Where’s my guide and support? – I’m gonna need some friends here. The trainer is now throwing everything they’ve got to us, to keep us going and stop us giving up or losing pace. Calls, jokes, encouragements fly from the trainer, who urges us to join in and vocalise. “Yip”, “Kiai”, “Whoop!”, the extroverts among us yell (feeling all the better for it).
Track 8. Whoah, endurance. Here come those 1001 high-knees, or 20 capoeira squats. This is more and worse, but we know now we’re going to do this, we’re not giving up. And actually – feeling a bit high, feeling good. Sweating and panting, that high continues to rise throughout the track. We are strong, we are feeling good. Fuck giving up!
Moving into Track 9, the mood by now is all: Come on, it’s ok, we’re nearly there now! Here’s the last track: – pull out your last resources, give it your all of what’s left, don’t flag, it’s (nearly) done. Some simple choreo allows us to shift into mind-free zone. It could be 100 jabs or a simple upper-upper-hook combo, but whatever it is, the trainer urges us to pull out the very last of ourselves and go for it, reminding us that this is our session, our body, our results. Nobody looks around now: we’re head down, dripping in sweat – seeing our own sweat drops on the floor beneath us – pushing through to the end and feeling the victory coming along.
Track 10. The last. Jumpstyle, EDM and Grime give way to mellow positive. Cooldown already? It’s gone so fast! Feeling fantastic. Blimey – we made it, we did it: I never imagined I could do that. Wow, I’m pleased with my own endurance and determination. High on endorphins and satisfied. The body feels energised and the mind feels positive and clear. And now the day will be different. I am different.
Our trainers are Potter’s Dumbeldore, Luke’s Obi-Wan, Simba’s Timon & Pumba. They support us with technical know-how, energy, humour and empathy. We walk away from class uplifted and strong – our own kind of heroes.
Why do white folk have to take over everything, omnivorously, is the – legit – question here. Questions about cultural appropriation and social class (which have, by now, been well-worked out with regard to yoga) feel like they need some kind of extra careful analysis and nuance when I think about combat. This practice doesn’t pursue a single invented tradition, but mashes up (stripped of context) moves from boxing, capoeira and several forms of martial arts into a commercialised and branded (Les Mills) product. In gym class – buying that product – we are a very mixed bunch with regard to age, gendering, ethnicities. The music is mostly USA / UK contemporary urban. Even as I joyfully kick and punch, yelling ‘kiai’ to a Scooter track, I can’t refuse the call to wonder what kinds of fantasies we are all privately drawing on to grow our strength and our stories of heroic overcoming. I know that they are not uniform.