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Aerobics is Back!

I am a resident of Din Daeng. For my daily exercise I go to a public aerobics programme that takes place at the Thai-Japanese Stadium every day at 6:30 pm except Mondays.

The programme is extremely popular among Din Daeng residents – an enormous number of people gather every evening, rain or shine, even in a storm, during a flood, blackout, and political turmoil. It is like a community gathering; we see people from all walks of life, housewives with children, street vendors, office workers who drop by after work, students. We can also meet various distinctive personalities among them – an old lady who comes always late and pushes herself through the crowd to dance at a certain spot which she has decided is hers no matter who is dancing there or near there; an aunty who often forgets to dance when she starts gossiping with her neighbours; a group of people wearing a mysterious NASA-like silver sauna suits

There are also quite a few couples, young and old, and I noticed that whenever the dance involves a more sexy move, they look at each other and smile. People dance in their own styles, too, in a way that we might call an artistic “interpretation” of the instructor's dance. Sometimes I am amazed at the imagination of these people who can “interpret” this in such an original style. At the end of the exercise, they all smile, panting, looking genuinely happy and rejuvenated – they all look like they want to come again the next day.

The public aerobics sessions were started more than a decade ago by the then Prime Minister who seems to be loathed nowadays by half the Thai population. Aerobics being one of his flagship populist programmes, he even led thousands of citizens in an exercise to earn a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records in the Largest Aerobics Gymnastic Display category. Since that time, public aerobics has survived a coup, the burning down of Bangkok and everything else and still continues in many public parks. The quality of public aerobics varies place to place, and that affects the number of participants. The one at the Thai-Japanese Stadium is executed in a systematic and professional manner by well-trained instructors for a good 40 minutes, and that is reflected in the enthusiasm of the crowd.

Perhaps this is only one of the few legitimate forms of entertainment in the community of government housing and slums where late-night gambling, motorbike races, drugs and alcohol are rampant, and perhaps only one of the few healthy life-style choices where people consume a huge amount of oily, MSG-packed foods and sugar-bomb drinks. They are able, perhaps, to forget their anxiety about how they will be able to get by tomorrow and all the other worries of daily life and dance madly without any feeling of guilt.

And perhaps, after the exercise, they will drink cokes and heavy-syrup iced tea again. Never mind, they do not necessarily come for health reasons but to entertain themselves and for a community get-together.

The variety of instructors is as impressive as that of the participants: heterosexuals, LGBT, a little girl who appears to be 10 years old, an old man who appears to be 70 years old, a Down’s-syndrome boy, who may or may not be an official instructor but is allowed to dance with them because he probably believes that he is one of them. And they are all there so naturally as if nobody has told them.

When I told this to my friends who live in Europe, they simply could not believe it. They say it would be impossible to gather so many varieties of minorities in Europe even with affirmative action. Though it may be taken for granted in Din Daeng, the story amazed even Westerners who are generally considered more liberal and progressive. “How can they achieve it?” they asked, and my answer is that perhaps we can see so many interesting characters because this is a neighbourhood of lower-income citizens; usually, the more middle-class a society becomes, the more people start to look all the same and boring.

A Czech architect friend of mine who is currently visiting Southeast Asia told me that a recent trend in architectural studies focuses on the behaviour of slum communities. The reason is that after many decades of failure to predict the pattern of life of a community by architects and urban planners who have created a series of designed modern communities that have been shunned by the residents, they have decided to go back to basics and started to examine how slum communities still manage to keep the community together in an organic and somewhat self-sustainable way. I am thinking of bringing him to here to see what he can learn from the robust residents of the area where the demolition of the aging buildings and their replacement by high-rises has been foretold for years.

Recently, however, the aerobics programme suffered a setback when it was suspended after the two clashes at the Thai-Japanese Stadium. The last time we were able to dance before the suspension, we had to do it among hundreds of policemen who had started to camp inside the stadium to prepare for the registration of parties for the election. We did not suspect even then that the community would not able to gather for as long as 2 months. The stadium itself has slowly and carefully opened a limited number of gates since, but all the facilities and programmes stayed closed much longer. A handful of people had to jog in a darkness that reflected the sorrow of what has happened and what was not there. As I jogged I was thinking of every face that wasn't there, particularly the Down’s-syndrome boy, his mother and grandmother in a wheel chair who all came to the aerobics every day for so many years. The event must have been the highlight of the day for the boy, and perhaps even for the whole 3 generations of the family. “What are they doing now instead?” I was wondering.

But then, some weeks ago, I noticed an intriguing development. A group of die-hard enthusiasts had started to exercise on their own, bringing a sound system with them. Starting with a handful, the crowd grew bigger and bigger day by day. To my surprise, the ones that were initiating the unofficial programme were men. Male participants are a minority in aerobics, possibly because of the image of aerobics among some people as a rather feminine form of exercise compared to, say, martial arts or boxing. Hence men are rather shy when they join. But once they know how difficult the exercise is, they become devotees.

And in this time of crisis, the minority stood up and started to practice without instructors. A man who brought his iPad and a speaker played the role of casual care-taker instructor who would signal a change of movement but only roughly and occasionally, and he was not perfect, so everyone had to rely on their own memory to move their body in the right direction and position. Aerobics is really not an easy sport. If we start to think too much about the order of movement of each arm and leg we cannot move at all and if we do not think at all and rely only on physical memory, we create a physical shambles. So the right balance of body and mind is required. Neurologists suggest that thinking while exercising is not only good for the body but is also the best form of brain exercise. A Polish translator who has the most unbelievable memory capacity that I have ever known – she doesn't need to take any notes while listening to a speaker before translating– told me that she benefited from rhythmic exercises that she took when she was child. She is indeed the embodiment of the neurologists' theory. And here we were, without instructors, having to use our brains a great deal to keep up, which may have been beneficial in empowering us. 

I witnessed another surprise when we were dancing the most difficult part of the exercise; the movement in that particular part is so complicated that most participants cannot do it properly even with instructors. But then, we saw a girl doing the move perfectly on her own – and that was the girl who generally dances to her own rhythm, in another words a little out of sync. A person who looked less capable in fact turned out to be more capable than the others. I was fascinated to see this whole new development, watching how people were trying, and proving able, to stand on their own without any leader or instructor.

And then on February 14, I finally saw the Down’s-syndrome boy, jumping around among the crowd. Down’s-syndrome children are the most peaceful human beings to the best of my knowledge; they are the least likely people to discriminate against others on the basis of gender, race, class, sexuality, or religion because such notions of difference seem to be of little relevance to them. They are a symbol of pacifism in my universe and their presence offers me peace of mind. So I was naturally glad to see him and felt happy for him; his joy was a sweet little St. Valentine's gift for me. After the exercise, I saw a man, sweating, who took off a top layer of shirts. Underneath was a t-shirt with the Thai colours. The public aerobics may have been started by his enemy, but whoever started it, if the idea is a good one, people in any ideological group appreciate it, I thought.

And then the next day, February 15, the official programme was finally resumed. Battered fences, broken doors and windows are still a painful reminder of the deadly incidents at the stadium, but most of the usual suspects were there: the man who always comes with a daughter who waits for him to finish the entire exercise, bringing him water time to time, a grim-faced old man who claps his hands at certain parts, and another man who keeps coming back even after his wife dropped out ... so many of them, smiling and laughing, their faces looking like they want to come back tomorrow, and the next day, without being interrupted by any more violence.

 

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Keiko Sei is writer, curator and teacher on media art and media activism. She is based in Yangon, Myanmar.