It all began my first week as a graduate student, when I was miraculously accepted into the University of California, Berkeley’s new modern dance program, led by two former members of the Martha Graham company. For two years, my sedentary routine of graduate study was punctuated every day by hours in a strenuous dance class. The two activities were also gendered differently. These were the days of incipient consciousness raising groups, and my women’s group of fellow grad students talked about how we were culturally “male,” because in 1970 we had no role models for a female professoriate in English, and what’s more, it seemed like we were less attractive to our male cohort because of it. But if we appeared “male” in our professional choices, dance class was a scene of femininity—all of us women, all of us building the female dancer’s body: strong, toned, supple, regarded as conventionally attractive.
I left grad school after three years, moved to San Francisco, and for the next several years defined myself mostly as a dancer and, yes, as a woman in the traditional terms of the times. But it was also these years that led to a California Arts Council grant to teach creative writing and movement classes for women at the Berkeley Women’s Center. I moved back to Berkeley but still made the journey twice a week to take dance classes in San Francisco, now with a guy who taught free-flow technique, emphasizing fluid movement over the signature static poses of Graham method. These classes were associated too with what it took for me to get to them: driving my VW bug up super-steep San Francisco hills, mastering the choreography it took to bring the car out of routine mid-hill stops—one foot on the gas, the other riding the clutch, and, at the same time, slowly easing off on the hand-brake. When it’s done right, you don’t roll back at all as the car begins to move forward. For years, I referred to this ability as a “macho” one.
Soon after, I returned to my Ph.D. program. Now there were feminist professors in my department, changing literary canons and new critical theories. Now I defined myself proudly as a female academic. At this time, too, I stopped dancing and started jogging. Berkeley’s hills are gentle ones, and it was easy to drive my bug up from the flatlands where I lived to a popular track at the base of the hills, where men and women of all ages, sizes, and fitness levels moved together. But gendered dynamics between academics and athletics, professional goals and personal yearnings, persisted for me here too, simply in the lay of the land. Jogging along one stretch of the track, you could see the big houses on the hillside, where some of my professors lived,. Coming back down the other stretch, you could see the San Francisco Bay and Mount Tamalpais, places I associated with romantic trips to Marin County. I like to joke that I ran in circles on that track for twenty years.
Even after I moved to Houston to be an English professor, I’d be back at that track in the summers and on sabbaticals. The last time I ran there was in 2008. I had driven my manual VW Passat through the Mojave Desert, just the day before, to the place I had sublet in the hills. I had a precious few months to make progress on my writing, but on my first day I put off work and headed out for the track, running at a good clip, downhill on concrete sidewalks, joyous, arms wide as if to embrace the vivid bay in front of me. After one lap at the track, I was done; I’d torn the meniscus in my right knee.
Now I “run” on the elliptical at the gym, usually at the end of a day of teaching and/or writing. Though I set the gauges on the low side to spare my knee, I have no problem identifying with the tiny figure drawn on the machine, a male, Olympic-type runner with amazing thigh muscles. And in a way, I’ve returned to dance again. My twice-weekly Pilates practice reminds me, deliciously, of Graham technique. With Pilates, you work at holding difficult positions that build core strength; it tightens you up at any age, so that you can even fool yourself into thinking that you see in the studio mirror your ideal, female dancer’s body of old. I know that’s ridiculous, of course; Pilates, as I tell my friends, is just the fountain of youth.
Six years ago, around the time I stopped jogging, started using the elliptical, and took up Pilates, I also purchased my first car with an automatic transmission.