Around the ages of 7 or 8, my siblings and I started attending the Skowhegan State Fair without our parents. My father would drop us off at the front gate, give us each $5 and direct us to meet him at the harness racing track at the end of the night.
I remember wandering the midway with my sisters. I remember trying to stretch a $5 bill to pay for a couple of rides and a game in hopes of winning a stuffed animal.
During one of those trips to the Skowhegan Fair, I discovered the hoochie-coochie tent. Not a tent, exactly, but a wooden façade covered with paintings of nearly naked women and giant words that described the attraction: “EXOTIC! FAMOUS! LAVISH! GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!”
Dancers in rhinestone costumes would appear every 20 or 30 minutes to entice the audience members into buying tickets. I gawked for as long as I could before being pulled away by a sibling or until those mysterious women disappeared behind fake doors.
Thus began my fascination with dance and flow.
There were no dance classes in my hometown, but I sometimes accompanied my friend – the only girl in a family of four boys – to her ballet class 30 minutes away. I would sit in the small waiting room watching girls in pink ballet costumes arrive at and depart from class and wonder, “Why not me?”
When life gives you lemons, become a cheerleader.
Making up steps to perform in front of bleachers of rowdy parents and teenagers was as close as I got to legitimate dance. And as a cheerleader, I watched hundreds of basketball games.
Before Title IX (worth noting here and not as a catalog selling exercise apparel) – “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” – it was only boys who played basketball at our school.
I loved the pace of the game, and I loved watching players pass the ball to each other without looking where they were passing. The best players possessed an instinctual awareness of space and timing that reminded me of dance … or cheering.
All movement is meditation if you can find the flow, but what is flow?
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has written several books on what makes people happy, “flow occurs when challenges match one’s skill level.
If the activity you are engaged in – say, basketball or dance – is too challenging or not challenging enough, your mind will wander away from the present and you will not experience flow.
The goal, as I understand it, is to stay with an activity long enough to find the balance between being challenged and being comfortable.
Experiencing flow is sometimes called “being in the zone.” Being in the zone is sometimes how I feel when I practice yoga. In a full-to-capacity yoga class, I am forced to go with the flow of the group or risk whacking my neighbor in the groin, for example.
Since my chance encounter with the hoochie-coochie girls, I’ve dabbled in modern dance, ballroom dance, African dance, yoga and Buti (a close cousin to hoochie-coochie but not illegal). I continue, however, to return to yoga again and again, often wondering why I ever stop. After years of craving movement for movement’s sake, I now crave the energy of the group practicing with me.
My challenge is not to think of this experience called “flow” as an escape from my life, but instead, as an investment in my future. If I can be calm, focused and in the zone at yoga, I might be, for just a minute or two, calm, focused and in the zone at work and with my family (which, in my case, are one and the same).
The Skowhegan State Fair is 197 years old. It is the oldest consecutively running agricultural fair in the nation. It still offers midway entertainment and harness racing. But if you are looking for a hoochie-coochie show, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Summer is fleeting. Enjoy it.
Originally written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald 6/20/15