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A Zumba Class And A Woman In Her 40s Ensured That I Never Judge Anyone By Their Body

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By Enakshi Biswas:

My friend Anish had just come back after asking a girl out for a date. He looked like a lawn roller had rolled over him. And he blamed his ‘extra blubber’ for the rejection.

Cut to the chase, on a Sunday, sacrificing a morning’s worth of sleep for the sake of Anish’s future love life, I met him at Andheri station. He made a war punch in the air. We were set to battle the bulge.

“So what exactly is Zumba?” he queried.

I replied, “Dance, done in a hurry.”

Anish groaned and said, “It is Samba, isn’t it? I should have suspected. You think, I want to learn that crazy Afro-Brazilian dance? It’s too jazzy for a good Indian boy.”

I laughed at his allusion to himself as a ‘good Indian boy’ and explained, “Its aerobics style dancing, mostly Latin American steps. You can pick up salsa steps. That’s a great date night idea, you can impress your date with your salsa moves.”

Anish snorted.

I said, “You wanted something different, right?”

“Try finding the studio first, we have been searching for it for ten minutes now.”

Nobody seemed to know where Hubtown Solaris was, the landmark provided in the address. Till a fruit vendor helped us with directions and said the area we were looking for, was called ‘Telli gali’.

Anish grimaced and said, “Eh? That doesn’t sound very fancy.”

I hissed at him and said, “Don’t be a snob.”

Finally we did find the high-rise apartment. I rang the doorbell. A healthy looking lady in her forties opened the door. I said, “We are here to meet Janice, the Zumba trainer.”

She smiled and opened the door, “Hi, I am Janice.”

We were in for a bigger surprise. This was no studio. This was simply Janice’s apartment where she had moved her furniture around and created some space for our work-out. Before I could let that sink in, Janice told us cheerfully to remove our shoes and take to the floor.

Zumba without shoes? I may not have known about Zumba but whatever little I knew of aerobics, wearing comfortable sports shoes is mandatory to prevent injury to the foot and ankle.

I avoided meeting Anish in the eye, feeling pangs of guilt for having ruined his Sunday morning. From the corner of my eye, I spotted him opening his running shoes, reluctantly I opened mine.

The warm-up was less of a warm-up and more of a slipping match. Anish and I kept slipping, wearing our socks. And Janice could barely move. She reminded me of a marshmallow, a melting marshmallow with all the sweat trickling down her face. There was no air conditioning in her living room and the warm-up had already made her short of breath.

Anish whispered to me, “I thought you said we would be taught Latin American dance steps.” For, at that moment we were wriggling our wrists to the raucous ‘Dekha jo tujhe yaar dil mein baji guitar’.

I think something snapped at me and I exclaimed, “A tapori song?!”

Janice, looking a bit pale, said, “A lot of people prefer Bollywood.”

She said weakly, “It is a fun track but I will change it.”

While she was looking through her music collection, I whispered to Anish, “I have doubts she would have anything in her collection other than Bollywood. Let’s just leave, we won’t pay for this trial class.”

Anish gave a strong look of disapproval. Typical of a girl, my bargaining skills took over and I said, “We’ve spent 15 minutes so far, we will pay her one-fourth the fees.”

Anish shot at me a disgusted look. I said, “What? I am trying to save your money, you ungrateful creature.”

But he looked disgusted nonetheless. And said, “Now, who is being a snob?”

And that’s when the lines, “You know my hips don’t lie” started playing out. I almost choked with mirth.

Anish sniggered. The thought of Janice huffing and puffing her way through a belly dancing track had already got us in splits.

I ragged her and said, “Teach me belly dancing.”

Janice, while looking uncertainly at Anish, asked, “What will he do if I teach you belly dancing?”

The more evasive she sounded, the more I felt the need to give her a hard time.

I had a look of challenge in my eyes. Maybe she got it. Anish stepped aside.

First, she swayed her arms on both her sides and said, “Snake arms. Not easy, but pretend as if your arms are paint brushes and you are painting a wall on each side of you.”

And boy, did she start belly dancing like Shakira herself. Anish looked like he had been struck by lightning. I looked vanquished, my mean girl avatar humbled by this lady who took us by storm or should I say, by belly. She owned the floor that morning. Uninhibited, not conscious of her extra pounds she danced like no one was watching. Her fluid, sinuous movements left us agape. Her belly rolls and belly flutters were so lyrical that when I awkwardly tried to imitate her, I realised how tenaciously she must have practiced to have reached this stage of perfection. As smooth as butter sliding on a frying pan, her hip slides looked graceful. The chest shimmies so ever elegant. The arcs she made with her arms reminded me of carved sculptures of dancing figurines on temples. Her undulating body to the tune of Shakira, was so fascinating to watch as wave after wave travelled down from her chest to her belly.

Shakira’s track melted into another mellifluous Arabic track and then another. We lost track of the tracks. Transfixed, we watched as we let her hips do the story telling. The beautiful loops of 8 she made with her hips were in perfect sync with the music in the background.

With agility, she picked up a big knife from the nearby table, balanced it on her head and gracefully shimmied, complementing it with deft footwork. I had never seen someone with so much body mass be so nimble on their feet when dancing. I realised, vigorous dancing was not her forte but this was.

Next she did, what she later told me was, the pigeon pose – where she sat on her folded legs and arched her body backwards, arching her arms back with the knife held arched back till it almost met her feet. She said that a belly dancer uses a sword as a prop in this particular exhibit.

She ended the dance with a flourish, by striking an effeminate Maya pose. In that Andheri East apartment, we had time travelled to the mystic lands of Egypt and Turkey and come back feeling spiritual. Yes, Janice had turned that erotic dance form into a deeper and a more moving experience for both Anish and me that day.

I, for my part, learnt never to be so judgemental about people. I realised that sometimes we become very superficial and go by the jazz that makes up the exterior. We form our opinions hurriedly and dismiss without getting to know the core. I learnt my lesson that Sunday morning. Never judge a book by its cover.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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