The Olympics are always an exciting time. The whole world watches in awe, as talent, power, precision and dedication are put on display. The human body is pushed beyond imaginable limits, records are broken and emotions run high. This is the beauty of professional sport.
Love of sport keeps many of us glued to the TV screen, but the lives of athletes can sometimes seem very far from our own. I am privileged enough to have met and related to many professional athletes through my personal and professional experiences. Many have struck me for their unwavering discipline and their indomitable will. Although I was impressed by them on so many levels, at times I felt I did not always understand or agree with their choices. It’s not always easy to put oneself in another person’s shoes. One thing I am grateful about is that watching my friends competing in the Olympics in stunning Rio, is an opportunity for me to reflect on what sports and exercise mean to me, and why I think they can help empower women.
I am a very privileged woman, and I am blatantly aware of it in every waking moment. I grew up in a fantastic family, I had the opportunity to travel from a very early age, I lived in many different countries, I studied hard, achieved a lot and made many life-long friends along the way. I haven’t always been conscious of how lucky I am. As a matter of fact, I was an extremely shy child and an insecure teen. I felt different, because of my ‘complex’ identity, my dual nationality and my unusual life. I wanted to fit it, but a mysterious force from within seemed to always push me to do things my own way. Like many teens, I had a conflictual relationship with my body – I hated my thighs, I couldn’t stand my mousy hair, I was embarrassed by my crooked teeth. I spent many years practicing ballet, and as much as I enjoyed dancing, and adored my ballet teacher, it didn’t really help boost my self-confidence. I was always a pretty decent dancer, but I never learned to love and accept myself and my body. I would only notice my limitations and imperfections.
I quit ballet when I started university and moved abroad. One day, whilst browsing the net, I discovered Zumba. It sounded like fun, so I decided to try it out. It was a revelation. I had never felt that way before: there were no mirrors, so I didn’t have to care about what I looked like or how accurate my moves were. I was working out, enjoying myself with other people, dripping in sweat, smiling like a Cheshire cat and feeling like a fox. A few months later, I obtained my certification and I have been teaching ever since. Recently, I have started running classes in a shelter for women who have suffered DV. Attendance isn’t always high – it’s summer, it’s hot and for many of the women it is hard to commit to a weekly class. Yet, for me it is a success even when one person turns up. I witness the residents dance, giggle and occasionally blush when I ask them to do a sassy move or be inappropriate, and it fills my heart with joy and pride.
In the past, many of my students, the majority of which are women, have told me that they love Zumba for a variety of reasons. For some, it is a chance to unplug and stop thinking about work and family life; for others, it is an opportunity to learn some dance moves in a very relaxed environment and without any pressure. Others still, just come along because it makes them feel good about themselves. I think dance, sport and fitness have so much potential to make a difference in girls’ and womens’ lives. Self-confidence and self-love are ever so crucial in every aspect of our existence. We live in a world where we are told to look like and not look like, how to behave, and not to behave, what we should strive for, and what we shouldn’t. It’s not always easy to turn a blind eye to all these pressures, and keep on believing in ourselves. It is even harder for women who have suffered violence – regrettably, this accounts for a large chunk of the world’s female population - and are both emotionally and physically scarred by it, to love themselves and their bodies. I think that a more ‘just’ world is a world where all gender stereotypes and social pressures cease to exist. I also think that one way to achieve this is by making sports accessible, and empowering women with the tools to build self-confidence, have fun, be healthy, practice self-love and learn from each other along the way.