I haven’t lost much weight from exercise, at least not from the type of routine I’ve fallen into lately, twenty minutes once of week on one of those hamster wheels. I think to really make a dent in your load you need to exercise a lot, every day, running in circles or cycling in one place for hours. But I find that kind of exercise soul-deadening. Maybe if I had a stronger sense of self, I wouldn’t let it get to me.
When I was in my twenties I spent most nights dancing at clubs. That was an amazing freedom, certainly nothing I ever viewed as exercise but rather movement driven by a mysterious purpose, something most people would label as purely sexual, but I didn’t think of it that way, since it was done mostly at gay clubs with no potential dates in sight. It was purely artistic expression.
A few years ago, with the memory of my old club days in mind, I decided I once again needed to exercise with a purpose other than slimming my thighs. Flamenco was what I settled on, for no particular reason other than that I liked the outfits, especially the Mary Jane–style shoes with the nails in them. This is an intense solitary dance, quite regimented even though in performance it looks freewheeling. I quickly got caught up in a Moorish fantasy, but it burned itself out after about 8 months, because ultimately it wasn’t me, plus my left heel got inflamed from all the pounding, so I could barely walk. I called it quits. I then went on to ballet, something I had studied as a child and thought must be imbedded in my brain, like an early language. But when you’re twelve it’s one thing. Ballet in middle age with obviously no intention of becoming a ballet dancer is one of the most miserable, pointless, and painful pursuits imaginable. I felt like a Zelda Fitzgerald in the making, and it scared me.
After some soul search I finally decided on something closer to my Southern Italian ancient heritage. The tarantella would be my next pursuit. This is a fantasy for most Southern Italian girls at some point in their lives (isn’t it?), with all its out-of-control screaming and jumping. But I discovered that there are two tarantellas, one a graceful Neapolitan courtship dance, something I was definitely not interested in, and the other, from Puglia, the highly agitated dance supposedly performed by a victim of tarantula bite, the dance I had in mind. That’s a convulsive fit that could engulf an Southern Italian neighborhood in dancing mania, with its music working its way from hysterical to soothing and finally, after hours of shaking and screaming, to harmony in the town and a cure. This was my kind of dance, but to my astonishment there seemed to be no lessons for it available in Manhattan.
As much as I could relate spiritually to the tarantella, I think I actually get most of my true, quality exercise from lugging heavy grocery bags around town. That seems, as much as I hate to admit it, an exercise most dear to my heart. It’s the most honorable exercise for a cook. It has the highest purpose.