The Dangerously Dexterous Dancer
For the last three years I have watched Dakotah teach women how to dance like crazy: how to get their hips down and dirty, make their boobs wave, and pull out their inner cowgirl. Her ZUMBA classes are spirited, just like her.
I have also watched Dakatoh’s body, marveling at both its shape—which is a masterpiece of strong lines and soft curve—and movement. Boy, can she dance. She’s also a dedicated mother of three. A soccer mom. A college mom. A caring mom. A kind mom. And from what I have observed, she’s also a very loyal friend.
Not so long ago, I was telling Dakotah about Patricia Moreno—the fitness guru and creator of intenSati—and how she had felt like a fraud at the peak of her TV celebrity fitness career because she was bulimic. I’m not sure why I even bought it up and certainly NOT because I had any intention of telling my strong, amazing dance teacher I used to be a total barfbag.
But then she started nodding and I heard that familiar word again.
“You were a fitness celebrity too?” I asked, not believing it could be anything else.
No. Same as in Dakotah knew the hideous cycle of bingeing and purging, and felt at times like a fitness fraud too.
Out came my same and we stared at each other, both equally shocked.
Five days later we had this conversation in her kitchen.
BB. What age did it start for you?
D. My Mum was a traditional hippie and health food freak. Everything available was very healthy and all I wanted was baloney and white bread. She also started a bakery when I was nine years old so my whole life revolved around food. I was always very round. I went up and down and I remember binge eating with girlfriends of mine and they would always throw it up and I would be stuck with it. So I would go for days without eating to make up for how much I had. Or I would do laxatives or take Ipecac syrup and every kind of possibility to get rid of what was in my body. It definitely started when I was really young.
BB. Can you tell me about those binges with your girlfriend?
D. We were 14, 15. Coming back from parties, I had the key to the bakery so we would go into the baked goods and stuff our faces. Then she would put her head in the toilet and puke it up and I would just be miserable. I would try and then I would, you know, go do an enema or take Ipecac. In the end my mum hid the syrup from me because she knew something was happening. She tried her best to get me help.
I was adopted and felt like I was never enough but then IT was never enough. When I was 10 or 12, I would go to my friend’s house and there was a particular cereal there—which has always been my number one choice of binge food and to this day I almost never touch it as I have never eaten just one bowl in my life, it’s always two or three and then it’s the whole box—and they used to say, “stop eating it all; stop being such a pig” and I remember the shame but not being able to stop. I was outwardly fine, and with the exception of the besties nobody knew what was going on. We didn’t talk about it either. I hid it well.
Then, at 18, I moved out of home and sunk really deep. I was working in a bakery getting up at four in the morning and I did some serious hard core bingeing. I remember passing out and waking up, wondering what time it was. In ’89 when we had that San Francisco earthquake people were saying to me, “what were you doing sleeping through it?” but the truth was, I was passed out from a food coma. I pretended I had no idea how I could have slept through a major earthquake but of course I knew it was from the bingeing. It was really bad. Around that time I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an auto immune disease. It has wreaked havoc on my colon—that’s my self-diagnosis. Even though I knew I was as in serious danger with it I never stopped bingeing.
BB. My binges were big too, out of control and emotional.
D. That’s what I learned from the 12 step OA [Overeaters Anonymous] program: that this is not in my control. I don’t even pretend to this day. No more dieting for me, no cleansing. I don’t even want to talk about other people’s food plans. I have people who are very dear to me and their life’s work revolves around nutrition and I just can’t discuss it. I step away and have a light conversation but I just can’t go deep because it overwhelms me and I get in a panic that I’m not doing it right. They might say, “Why don’t you try and remove gluten” and I just can’t consider it. I have to take it one day at a time and hope that I am gentle to my body. Every day.
BB. How did you pull yourself out of those dark times?
D. I was invited to go travelling and we went all over Southeast Asia. For the first month I was heavily bingeing and carrying an excessive amount of weight for my body—it wasn’t nice sweet weight but mean-to-your-body binge weight—and we travelled to Nepal and both got sick. We had some sort of bacterial infection and dropped all the weight and then some. All of a sudden I was this thin person. We kept trying to take antibiotics but it wouldn’t go away. I travelled all over the world and could eat anything I wanted because it all came out in the toilet. Miraculous. A bulimic’s dream.
BB. I have been guilty of wishing that a few times: ‘If I could get a mild dose of food poisoning…’
D. I remember my friend then, bless her heart, when I was in the middle of a binge I would make her order more food for me.
BB. Did she know what was going on?
D. I think the struggle was very real for her too. She was anorexic for many years; we were both in it. I always felt like mine was worse as I always felt fatter and uglier, and my binges—in my mind—were deeper and darker than hers.
When we hear bulimic we think more of ‘weak willed’. We generally carry more weight than the tragic anorexics, who are seen to be more in control. The bulimics are seen to be out of control but we look quite normal so we don’t receive a lot of sympathy for our disease. I remember stealing food from my roommate and having to come clean and saying I would replace it. Mortifying. I used to go into bakeries and I had a fake list of people I pretended to buy donuts for, “I was getting this one for so and so, and this other one for another person…” But I ate the whole box. I have walked through the drive-through in restaurants when they’ve been closed and didn’t have a car. I had all sorts of strategies to get my bags of ridiculousness. Just so much shame.
BB. What happened after you travelled?
D. I got on the right antibiotics and the weight came back on slowly which was hard, but I was getting healthy too. And then I quit smoking when I was 21 and I started running. In the first month I quit smoking I cried and jogged and cried and jogged but I managed to give up the cigarettes. So then my outlet for any overeating came through exercise. Around 21 I became pretty obsessive about it, I maintained a semi normal weight through excessive exercise. I could overeat but the heavy bingeing wasn’t as common.
And then I fell madly in love with my husband. When I met him I was quite round and you know how you often lose weight when you first fall in love because you stop eating and he was like, “No! Where’s the bottom, you’re losing the breasts, stop..” Within his [Mexican] culture and community I was allowed to be curvy. It was embraced, loved, admired, and for the first time in my life I felt sexy in my natural body, which was always a bit curvy. I wasn’t dieting or being disciplined but eating what needed to be eaten. I never went back to that deep dark place because I had a husband who loved me just the way I was, and children to take care of. Then I started teaching aerobics classes so I had to show up every single Monday morning.
At times, when I felt my weight creep up, I have stopped teaching. I think, honestly, when I started teaching ZUMBA and developed some new friendships—really deep ones that put me in a new place—it’s been the healthiest time in my life. I’ve felt strong, fit and healthy.
BB. How is your head now?
D. I had an injury recently in my elbow and had to get cortisone shots and once they started injecting me I immediately went up eight pounds. It was heart breaking because I had finally found a weight that was focused on being strong and healthy—not a number—and my eating was good. I was devastated and went to the Doctor and told him I was never getting another cortisone shot because of the weight and he said, “Oh well, I can fix that for you.” Immediately the addict in me said, “You can? How?” So he proceeded to prescribe me diet pills. You can imagine how excited I was. I started taking the pills and magic, the eight pounds disappeared. Everyone was saying, “You look amazing, oh my gosh” but then I had that guilty shame.
BB. At university I used to put on five sweatshirts and two pairs of jeans and go to a dodgy doctor to get diet pills for my whole flat. We would all take them and go dancing; my roommates liked them because of the speed effect and I always secretly wanted them because I wouldn’t eat for 24 hours. Very dangerous for bulimics.
D. Oh I know!
BB. Has dancing helped you be nicer to your body?
D. It’s a double edge sword. On one hand, everyone sees me shaking my body, full of confidence, feeling good, and inspiring others to dance. I want people to embrace their curves, and I say, “We’re going to shake the ass, not loose the ass” and that’s who I am—that’s my best self—but then I come home and pick and poke and hope to lose weight and there’s this whole other icky side; my self-hatred runs deep.
I got a bit tipsy one night and told a good friend that I was on diet pills and she got angry. She made me promise I would get off them. The thing that really got to me was that she said (aside from the obvious danger), “I look up to you as somebody who embraces her body and that’s why I love you because I know that you struggle, and there you are turning up every day for all these other women, so taking those pills doesn’t seem right to me.” I felt that deep dark shame that I wasn’t good enough. My good friends watch out for me.
BB. She’s right. That’s one thing I love about your classes too. That’s your gift. If people knew how you battled they would love you even more, not think less of you, because you show up for us no matter how you’re feeling. Honestly though, nobody knows. I never ever thought you would have had any issues, and you would think I would be able to spot a fellow bulimic by now.
D. There’s a fine line between focusing on feeling stronger and fit vs. wanting to be thinner. If I am really honest with myself I don’t desire to be super thin like I used to be. I do have a particular weight that I feel my most energized self but that’s a weight that is hard to maintain so I’m trying to be gentle around that and allow myself flexibility. That’s my present goal: to go for moderation and self-love. I struggle in different ways and it’s not as bad as it was but it’s still very much a part of me.
BB. I’m still weird with food sometimes. I’ll say, “No thanks,” to a brownie but then find myself slicing off a corner later in the kitchen when I’m alone, and then another corner, and another, and another, and then half the brownie has gone, and I’ll think ‘why didn’t I just eat the goddam brownie in the first place?’ I worry about my daughter. Do you?
D. I worry about my older son much more. He used to have rolls and rolls of fat as a young boy, until about twelve, and then he lost all the weight very quickly and started to obsess around food, and I was worried that he was anorexic. I panicked that I had destroyed him, that it was my fault. He analyses food and has lots of issues around it, and games—he slices a tiny piece off a brownie too, then goes back for another sliver, and another, and another—but thank goodness he hasn’t done the deep and dark binge stuff. My daughter is the youngest; she eats like a little bird and is very comfortable in herself. She is amazing and I believe it’s because her Dad just doted on her and gave her everything—the sun rises and sets with her for him. Her self-esteem is through the roof and it will stay that way forever. She didn’t get it from me! Except that I adore her as well so hopefully that counts.
BB. Your daughter sees you inspiring a room full of women to enjoy their bodies—that is a very powerful thing for her to see.
D. ZUMBA, for me, creates a very tribal experience that is almost religious—as dance is for people all around the world. Maybe being Native American it’s in my genes, but the drumming and the moving, and the community, and nature of what we feel—that’s what keeps me going. That feeling. Maybe it’s what my husband feels in his Catholic Church—the Holy Spirit—that’s what I feel in ZUMBA, which I’ve tried to explain to him. I feel like I have only a little talent but in that group experience, I feel like I have something to offer. It’s a gift in the moment. I feel grateful, in awe and overwhelmed but if I’m making women’s lives brighter then I will continue to get my butt in front of the room and all that entails for me. The day I am not a gift then I’ll step aside.
BB. I’ve sensed that tribal feeling too. We’re not comparing the size of our backsides, but celebrating how far and wide and crazily we can shake them. It’s not about how we look but how wild we can feel.
D. I feel like bulimia and anorexia are a colonial, western society disease, where there is excess of everything and greed for more and more. Also, a lack of community in this culture makes people feel alone, leading to self-hatred. I have spent many many years in the Mexican community and I just never see that shame and guilt about over eating or self-hatred around bodies. I may hear women complain “Aye que gordita estoy!!! Ni modo.” [how fat am I?..oh well!] But that’s it. Then they laugh and say, “Oh, living on!” I’ve noticed that there are more magazines coming out featuring Latino and African American women showing big bottoms and it’s wonderful. Now that’s HOT. I look at the plus-size models and they are definitely nicer to look at than Twiggy types and hopefully more and more we’ll be able to show real bodies and focus on strength, and strength of spirit, and not thin thin thin.
BB. Agreed. I never thought I would applaud Kim Kardashian for anything but she has helped us celebrate the large, curvaceous derriere. A fabulous conclusion. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
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