It was never about exercise, nor changing my body. It was about doing something my body felt comfortable with.
Until recently, I didn’t truly appreciate how much of my childhood I spent in church, despite never attending a service. Though I didn’t believe in much of anything, I was a kid who spent more time in a religious building than I did in a swimming pool or a public library.
At least three times a week, I was dropped off in a car park under a big cross. I bypassed the holy threshold and took myself into the small room or connected hall, where I worked toward my next Brownie badge, or sang whatever song we were working on, or stepped up to the barre.
This is a common experience among British kids. Community and religious halls serve as multi-purpose incubators for our childhoods: classes, birthdays, weddings, and fairs were all hosted in these spaces, regardless of who was attending. If you could book it, you could have it—Christian or not.
This year, thanks to nothing more remarkable than a few long walks after a class, I began to appreciate how important these spaces have been in forming not only an integral part of myself, but how I see community halls continue to be a vital part of the health and wellbeing of those close to me. Since the age of three, in these spaces, I’ve danced. I’ve never stayed with, nor committed to anything longer, than dance.
While other classes came and went, I pointed my toes every Saturday in a cold church hall in the middle of Hatfield, a town just outside of London—most famous for once being a country home to royals, now mostly known for having a shopping mall. It had no mirrors, no barre, only a floor polished to kill. Whereas buildings nearby had their windows regularly smashed and their walls vandalized, in some sort of silent contract, no one touched the hall.
We often had people interrupt our classes seeking sanctuary. No one was turned away: morning drunks; the cold looking for heating; one teen who stole the local corner shop’s entire chewing gum display. All came through and were welcomed to watch, to even sometimes join in with our little class.
After years of dancing together, I learned that one girl drove for nearly an hour each Saturday to attend the class. Our teacher had supported her previously in returning to dance following serious surgery. She felt safe with her, so stayed when our teacher moved classes to our local church. I didn’t have a way to describe it at the time, but I understood this loyalty and its importance.
I loved dance. I was good at it. It gave me clear frequent goals in exams and rewarded me for achieving them. And it was the one kind of exercise I enjoyed. For years, I thought of nothing greater, nor different than the tiny world of that hall and all the people in it. My dance teacher led a class of girls, diverse in age, ethnicity, and wealth. She held us all to the same standards: to arrive in a leotard, hair neat, and to show respect.
But like most suburban teens, I got itchy feet and thought of bigger things: Pineapple Dance Studios in London was having a moment and Channing Tatum in Step Up was the best marketing fancy dance schools could have ever asked for. I made plans around moving to the city and becoming a regular attendee of a flashy studio, with clean white walls, a sound system, and friends dressed head-to-toe in designer workout gear. I was going to live in London forever and leave my small town behind. I was, like most teens, deciding my whole life at sixteen years old.
And—shout out to me—I followed my plan. I stuck with my church hall classes for fifteen years until the week I left for university. I moved to London, with a student loan that barely covered lunch, and proceeded to spend all of it on things I thought I should be doing as a university fresher: drinking in bars that overlooked overcrowded landmarks, visiting tourist-trap markets and restaurants, and attending exercise classes that weren’t “dance” or “yoga,” but were given names like “Beyoncé Bootcamp” or “Brunch Burner”—all filled with dozens of other girls with rapidly plunging self-confidence.
I can’t say I enjoyed it. I felt bad constantly. About the fact that I couldn’t afford gym wear other than an old sports bra; about my body that was, for the first time, brightly lit and fully exposed by the studios’ endless mirrors and lights.
I’d pay half a week’s food budget to attend an overcrowded class, booked a month in advance. I don’t think I ever saw the same attendee twice. I convinced myself that the eye-watering expense of these classes made them worthwhile, like an act of financial self-flagellation.
It just felt like one of those things you had to go through to be an adult. Exercise, it seemed to me, was a just punishment for the vices of elder life. You hurt your body for your sins, then go and see your friends for overpriced drinks. You make fun of where you grew up and feel embarrassed about people you used to spend every day with, people who never left home. You go and throw away anything valuable from that time in your life, because you’re so caught up with trying to act worldly, you don’t have the time to actually develop foresight.
Unsurprisingly, I quit the classes after a while. I made the excuse that they cost too much and that I wanted more free time. But I was happy to bleed money and time into religiously attending the pub. I tried other forms of exercise: I ran and got shin splints. I went to the gym and just got angry at men. I knew I missed dance, but couldn’t think of a way to return to it that didn’t feel like a step back.
For years, I thought of nothing greater, nor different than the tiny world of that church hall and all the people in it.
Frustratingly, the solution was clearly available. Now free of children at home, my mother had returned to yoga after twenty years. When I visited home, I’d go with her to classes, held in the church hall that once hosted my Scout meetings. I enjoyed every class, and then would return to London and become miserable again. Dance, I’d convinced myself, was no longer part of the plan.
But when I was fifteen, I doubt I could have predicted the way the world would be when I was twenty-five, nor the way the UK would feel in the late 2010s. Plans of staying in the city and hardening myself into someone who could endure decades of tube journeys felt like unnecessary emotional spend.
A string of bad days at work that were made worse by London’s claustrophobia led to plans to move to South West England, which I’d fallen in love with during a trip to Bristol the year before. In March 2019, propelled by redundancy, I moved to Bath.
There are so many awful, cliché, and just overdone things about the fairly usual process of moving from a capital city. I’ve in many ways become a parody of them all. I get most of my shopping from my local farmer. Going to London has become a chore. If I wanted a hat-trick, I would have banded together with a group of other misfit young women in an underdog sports team. I’ll work on that point.
Having mocked it before, I now understand the importance of actually participating in these clichés. It’s the act of creating your community: By going to the market each week, I have someone who knows my name and face, and asks after me the week I don’t show up. By joining a local underdog sports team, going to a class, or visiting the same pub, you become a regular, make friends, and keep a social space open for others.
In all the years I lived in London, the thing I missed most (apart from maybe breathable air and tap water that didn’t taste like old spoons) was having that community that, because of huge rents, ever-changing high streets, and the pace of trends, I never got.
In our first week in Bath, my boyfriend became terrified after a cyclist said good morning to us while out on a walk. I took a moment and reminded him—this is why we’re here, embrace it. Living somewhere that survives on routine and community has felt empowering, like I can make a difference with my small everyday actions: shopping at delis rather than a supermarket, or buying coffee from the local bakery. It grounds you and clears your view of the world.
As I began to settle in my new home, I couldn’t ignore the need to fill the dance void. Without it, it felt like going through the motions of life without committing to anything. After years of studios and teachers that didn’t know my name, I needed the accountability of a small class, a small hall, and a teacher that could look me in the eyes and say my name when I messed up. So I booked into a barre class in a parish hall.
When I started my first class, I realized what I’d been missing for years: the familiar. The absurdly shiny floor. A stage with a cross off the side of our dance space. Chairs instead of a barre. Mistakes were met with laughs; conversations were had mid-lesson. Women ranging from their twenties to way past retired were there to dance. I’ll always remember my first class when I first moved to Bath, where one woman told me she’d been attending the teacher’s class for fifteen years. I felt safe.
More importantly, they were there to be a part of something social that breached broken generational divides. Classmates give lifts to one another to and from the hall, and when I told others I was new to the city, they all asked if I’d seen a different landmark, helping to keep me busy as I found my feet. When the coronavirus pandemic forced social isolation, more technologically inclined attendees offered their help to set up Zoom accounts so others could still attend virtual classes.
Across the city, people helped out; independent shops, restaurants, and bars became inundated with people wanting to see them survive. Food unions were started, all places offered and encouraged NHS donations. The move to forming this safety net appeared seamless; all the components were there, the community was already there, it just took a once in a lifetime pandemic for the network to show.
It was never about exercise, never about changing my body.
It was never about exercise, never about changing my body. It was about doing something that I knew, something my body felt comfortable with. It was about being in a space that felt familiar; from religious paraphernalia to old glowing red heaters. In a decade where I’d gone from living at home, to university, to my first jobs, to a whole new city, I’d denied myself familiarity in the name of growth. I’d torn up my roots and refused to let them anchor so many times. Sometimes, the best thing is to pause.
Outside of us, I see how community benefits our city—the independent stores, the farmers, the cultural sites all rely on connections with local residents to stay alive. The community spaces I love so much need me as much as I need them.
Back in my small town, my parents’ week revolves around community spaces. My mother’s yoga class, my dad’s tai chi class, the weekly meetup of pensioners who they’ve taught to aggressively play Mahjong. Without these places, a collection of British boomers might never have heard of the Chinese game, or might never have tried the tandoori chicken my dad always brings to social gatherings. My parents might never have had company in their retirement.
My mum, who used to care for the elderly, eulogizes the power social interaction has throughout your life; for keeping your brain going, for creating a collective who check on you when you don’t show up that week. With everything recently, I keep thinking about how even more vital this has become.
Classes moving online have become some people’s only social contact. Classmates have become isolated and vulnerable people’s lifelines. It’s an aggressively physical manifestation of my mother’s theory: Community gives you a purpose, even through unprecedented difficulties. I can’t overstate how grateful I am for the vital role community spaces are playing in looking after the people most important to me right now. I’m sure they felt when the same spaces gave me friends and lifelong hobbies decades ago.
People talk now of Pineapple Dance Studio the same way I used to speak of my school friends—passing remembrance peppered with distaste, like I’d speak of a poor kind lad who’d tried to stay in touch years after we left school.
I never did make it to the studios. But I make sure I don’t miss a week of parish hall barre. I practically skip to class, and at its end I’m always asked if I’ll appear next week and am encouraged to appear at more classes in the week.
I do it all in my old sports bra and leggings, and no one bats an eyelid.