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Not Quite Ribbon Dancing
I don't know what made me take my friend Aria's dare to join her in a rhythmic gymnastics class. Don't even ask me what that is. Aria insists it's one of the hardest sports in the world. Yeah right. She wouldn't last five minutes with my varsity coach. I guess that c***y thought is what drove me to take the dare in the first place. For me, a male, high school varsity football player, to join Aria in some gymnastics class.
It all started when we were walking through the bustling school hallways on our way to the cafeteria, and Aria was rambling about something that happened at gymnastics practice when I blurted,
"Rhythmic gymnastics is just ribbon-dancing. It shouldn't be a sport." Big. Mistake. What happened exactly? Let's just say you can add never insult Aria’s sport on the list of not-to-do's, along with telling Aria her shoes are ugly, you hate her new haircut, and yes-that new dress make her look fat.
I wish I could take those words back. But before I knew it, Aria’s pale face was as red as a beet and she was gibbering through what seemed like a speech longer than then the Gettysburg address. I was only able to pick out a few words:
“You don't know a thing you…gjhjkghdkjdgjkd…..we train for four hours a day and my coach gkjdfegmnsdgfmhdgfm... If only you knew how hard it is and fjkdhgdhjksdh.”
Oooookay. I was about to make an excuse and run for the bathrooms. But before I could, Aria suddenly stopped her rant and smiled.
"If you think it's so easy, why don't you come to practice with me tomorrow?" No way. I’d rather die from being repeatedly stabbed with a butter knife than—
"Sure whatever, I'll do it." Maybe a part of me thought it was just a joke. My friends and I tease and dare each other all the time, and then forget about it. But that's one of the perks of having your best friend be a girl- Girls don't forget anything….and no, Aria is not my girlfriend. That night, while I was pouring over useless in-later-life algebra homework, I got a call:
"Hi.” Aria answered me blandly. “I talked to my coach and she said it'd be ok." I got a funny feeling in my stomach,
"Ok to do what?"
"Hello? Earth to Richard….Don’t you remember?” I could just imagine her giving me that sassy, Duh look from the other side of the line.
"For you to come to practice with me tomorrow, idiot." I felt my cheeks burn,
"So, tomorrow after school?" she insisted.
"Come on, I was just playing." I complained, wracking my brain over different possible ways to get out of this. "You can't just-”
"So, you're saying that rhythmic gymnastics would be too hard for you?" She insisted, a playful but challenging edge to her voice.
I bit my lip. She had me cornered,
"Fine, fine. I’ll do it.....God, I'm going to regret this."
"I'm sure you will." There was a long silence as I contemplated what I just agreed to do. Gymnastics? Rhythmic gymnastics? I could barely do a cartwheel!
“This is what you get for opening your fat mouth” Aria said finally. “Do you have a leotard? Bun maker?" I froze. After a long silence she broke out laughing,
"Relax, I'm kidding. Just bring something athletic. You're going to need it."
After I hung up, I opened up my laptop to see what I really got myself into. I had never really known what rhythmic gymnastics was before this. A few Google and YouTube searches later, I knew I had made a major mistake.
First hint I was entering dangerous territory: Rhythmic gymnastics is an all female sport.
Second hint: Every single image you see of rhythmic gymnastics shows some ridiculous contortion that's cool, but makes you want to vomit at the same time. One picture showed a gymnast doing an arching-split leap where the split resembled a “V” and her spine was contorted so much her head touched the back of her knee. And trust me, that's enough to spook a boy who can barely touch his toes.
Third hint: The girls do crazy acrobatics and tosses with different apparatuses. Ribbons, hoops, balls, ropes and these two things that to me look like maracas, but are actually called clubs. And all I know how to handle is a football.
I wanted to call Aria and admit defeat. Ok fine, rhythmic gymnastics is a sport. But I had my dignity.
The next day though, I wished I had sucked it up the night before. All day at school I hoped something, anything would pop up so I wouldn't have to go: spontaneous early dismissals, lice outbreak…UFO attack. But after school, I found myself in the back of Aria’s car, listening to her mother drone on about how great it was that I was exposing myself to the beauty and grace of the sport.
Great. My only escape now would be to jump out the car window. But considering we were zooming on the freeway, that might not be a good idea. We pulled into a narrow driveway. Looming before me was a tall building with steel I-beams and blue double doors- ready to suck me into my fate of humiliation and possibly pain. Outside the gym, there were two basketball hoops with the sun glinting off the rims.
Aria, sporting a jet-black dance leotard and shorts, yanked me out of the car. I made some last minute excuses as I was dragged closer and closer to the tall building, which was now casting a shadow over both of us.
"It's a nice day." I insisted, trying to peel Arias hand off my wrist. But that girl had an iron grip,
"Why don't I stay out here and shoot some hoops while-" Aria rolled her eyes,
"Oh my god, you're such a jock."
"Honestly I don't-”
"You can’t chicken out now!”
And before I knew it, I was inside a high ceilinged gym with a huge, outstretching beige carpet. On the edge of the gym there were benches covered with half-open equipment bags, spewing their contents all over the floor.
The first time I set foot in that gym, I knew I was in the wrong place. Willowy and athletic looking girls of all ages were jump roping, stretching out their shoulders or wrapping injuries in support-tape. There were girls in leotards, shorts and tights with their hair in braids or buns.... and then there was me, with my buzz cut and orange sweatpants.
A stout brown haired lady walked up to me with a dimpled smile on her face,
“Hello, You must be Richard.” She said with a distinct Russian accent. “Aria said you were coming to see what practice is like.” She didn’t say anything else, but from the humored look on her face, I could tell Aria had told her everything.
“Um, I’m not that great at gymnastics or-”
The coach waved her hand dismissively,
“Don't worry about it. Just do what you can and try to keep up.” I didn’t enjoy the way she said, try. The coach walked away and I turned to whisper something in Aria ear. But, she had slipped away from me to join her teammates who were looking in my direction and laughing. Love you too, Aria.
“Ok girls!” The coach clasped her hands. “Go to the wall.” Another lady…. also Russian, with long cascading dirty-blond hair and bright hazel eyes walked towards the middle of the room as everyone lined up along the wall. I awkwardly followed them, feeling everyone’s eyes boring into my back like lasers.
The ballet teacher waited before finally saying,
Everyone turned their feet out. First position? Was I seriously taking some lame ballet class? I probably should have waited a little before labeling the class as lame. The teacher, in an even thicker accent than the coach, threw around a bunch of French ballet terms at us that made zero sense to me. But everyone else seemed to get it. They immediately started extending their legs and arms and going through complicated footwork, all while looking graceful.
I must have looked like some deranged chicken as I tried to do the ballet exercises with my two left feet and nonexistent gracefulness. I did my best, determined not to let Aria see that a ballet class was hard for me. But even so, my muscles, especially my legs, were cramped and strained.
“Girls, turn out you hips!” The teacher demanded. “Kick higher, and hold. Extend.”
I had to rest while the five-year-old in front of me was gracefully breezing through the motions. Talk about humiliation… I hoped no one was filming this.
The exercise difficulty escalated until it got to a point where the girls were on their tip-toes and holding their legs above 90 degrees. Their faces looked grim with effort, and their muscles were shaking, but they held the position. I could barely straighten my leg, let alone turn it out and lift it. Suddenly I felt a soft hand on my leg,
“Turn out.” The ballet teacher twisted my leg out and I winced.
“And extend.” she said slapping my foot. “Point your toes.” I heard a few giggles.
“Extend more.” I was trying so hard my leg was shaking, but it was still hovering only about an inch off the ground. Every single person in that gym was giggling and I wanted to melt into brown sugar like the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz.
“Get on releve.” the teacher said, tapping my supporting foot. I didn’t know what releve meant until she translated, “Tip-toes.”
I tried and almost fell on my face. The giggles erupted into laughs. I didn't blame everyone for laughing, I would have thought I was funny too. But that didn't mean I enjoyed being the laughing stalk.
Afterwards, I shot Aria an I'm going to kill you look. She smiled at me innocently,
"You'd make a great ballerina.”
"Shut up." If there weren't so many younger kids I would have flipped her the finger.
I thought my torture was over and everyone would do some ribbon waving for a few minutes before I could finally go home. But girls got out carpet mats and had started to run through different conditioning exercises.
"How long is this class?" I whispered to Aria. She gave me a sideways smile,
"It's practice not a class. And to answer your question, four hours." I blinked,
She just smiled and walked away. These were definitely going to be the worst four hours of my life. I sighed, desperate to get this over with. I will admit, the conditioning was torturous. I lay there panting half the time, while everyone soldiered through the exercises.
"Nice job Richard." The coach said smiling a little. "I can tell you're really trying". The girls looked strained, but I still heard giggles. I closed my eyes, trying to think back to a time where me, one of the captains on the varsity football team, ever felt more humiliated. Frankly, I couldn’t think of anything.
Then "back warm-ups" came along. And "back warm up" is in quotes because you have to be some sick contortionist to survive it. The girls bent themselves like cooked noodles. Ugh. Wasn’t there a limit where the human body just snapped?!
When everyone finished, they grabbed chairs off a rack. I started to freak out when everyone put one ankle on each chair and slid into splits that stretched over 180 degrees. I was partially humbled by everyone’s skill and pain tolerance, and a tad bit freaked out that their legs were going to snap.My eyes drifted to the exit sign,
Ok, Aria I get your point. Can we leave now?
"When's the ribbon-waving part?" I asked a short brunette after the stretching was over. She frowned,
"You mean apparatus work?”
“That's after leaps." There was more? Chatting and laughing among each other, the gymnasts strapped on ankle weights and lined up to begin doing small jumps, which then turned into ridiculous arching split leaps and other freakish things that didn’t look like they should be humanly possible. I stood and watched.
"Too hard for you?" Aria snickered. One too many times, all attention was turned towards me. There was a good-humored suspense in the air. I sighed. Everyone knew I couldn't do anything. What did I have to lose?
"I'll do one leap." I held my finger up.
"Turning split!" A girl called. There were Oohs and laughs.
“Arch stag!” I didn’t have a clue what those leaps were, so I made up my own. Everyone stopped and watched as I jumped up and did some weird leap which vaguely resembled a dying goose. Cheers and laughs filled the gym. That is, until I landed awkwardly on my ankle and collapsed.
Instantly the coach jumped up and everyone crowded around me. My heart pounding and cheeks burning, I checked my ankle. It didn't hurt too badly. I poked it- nothing was broken.
"I'm ok." I said shakily, getting up and dusting myself off. It did hurt a little when I walked though.
"Next time." The coach gave me a tired look. "Point your toes." Even I had to laugh.
I ended up sitting out the rest of the four-hour practice, watching Aria and her teammates practice with different apparatuses. By the time practice was finished, everyone's leotards were drenched with sweat, their cheeks were flushed, and their originally neat hair became a total mess. Especially Aria's. Her hair looked like it had gotten into a bad fight with a pair of scissors. I had to admit, these girls were tough... but don't tell Aria I said that.
“So.” Aria linked her arm with mine as we walked down the school hallways the next day. “Is Rhythmic Gymnastics too easy for a tough football jock like you?” I groaned,
“Can we talk about this someplace else….like where 1000 gossip hungry high schoolers aren’t ready to listen?” Aria shrugged and disappeared into the mass of students.
I let out a long sigh and crouched down to massage my ankle, which was still throbbing from yesterday. The football season started in two weeks…..I couldn’t wait.