Damn She Got a Body

Mary Mullen

This is a love letter to the West Philadelphia YMCA. It’s also an essay about the Bodypump #112 Playlist—a playlist that I happily know by heart despite the utter clunkers it contains (here’s looking at you, “Killer Queen”), and the sweet sadness it evokes (I only need to hear the beat of “So Close” in order to get teary-eyed, forget the lyrics, Was it all too much or just not enough/When we got so close, so close to love?). As playlists go, it’s not really my jam. While I tend to like slow, sad songs with a hint of drama and healthy dose of nostalgia, these songs are resolutely upbeat even when the lyrics are about the messy feelings that approach love without achieving it. Sometimes, though, you don’t choose the playlist—it chooses you. The Bodypump #112 playlist helped me find continuity and community in a life premised upon dislocation. 

 

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First, the love letter. The West Philadelphia YMCA is a space of radical hospitality. In many ways it’s a modest space—I think the whirlpool is out of order more frequently than it is working, the gym was closed for repairs for one long summer, and they only recently added televisions to the treadmills—but it’s a space full of unbelievably generous people who look out for one another, welcome newcomers, and actively build community through care. I’ve had to move a lot for my career. And, after years of moving to new places (Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, California), and living in-between places while in a long-distance relationship, I was filled with an immediate sense of comfort when I first ventured to the bodypump class five years ago. I had no idea what bodypump was—the website said it was a mix of strength training and cardio—and I was a little nervous. The regulars quickly took me under their wing, telling me how to set up my bench and what weights I’d need. After attending a few classes, they’d greet me with a hug and a joke. 

 

Five years ago, the bodypump class was a site of regular people and irregular routines. Class didn’t always start on time, and every so often it’d be set up for circuit training rather than the normal fare. Circuit days tended to correspond with the instructor’s menstrual cycle—as she told the class one day, “If I’m suffering, you’re suffering.” I loved this understanding of shared suffering; this way of marking that we were traveling through time together.

 

Life took me away from the West Philadelphia YMCA. My partner got a job in South Carolina, long distance became more expensive, and I became more weary: I didn’t feel like I had the time or the funds for a regular gym membership. Living between two places, I couldn’t figure out how to invest in community. During my last class at the Y, I cried.

My somewhat-triumphant return to the Y took place in South Carolina. The facilities were far nicer—two pools! tennis courts! enough mats for everyone in class!—but the atmosphere was entirely different. No one greeted me (either on my first day or after a year of being a regular in the Monday, Wednesday and Friday classes), there were no jokes—certainly no jokes about menstruation—and there were a lot more pearl earrings. One woman frequently showed up to class with a “spiritual gangster” t-shirt—she tended to do her own ab exercises instead of listening to the instructor.

 

Bodypump was a whole different thing in South Carolina. Instead of shifting schedules and disparate routines, it was a regimented workout carefully synced to a single playlist. To be more clear: bodypump at the South Carolina Y was BODYPUMP™️—a branded set of barbell exercises and corresponding playlists that emphasizes low weights and high repetitions. As the BODYPUMP™️ website explains, “Instructors will coach you through the scientifically-backed moves and techniques pumping out encouragement, motivation and great music.” This self-proclaimed “great music” changed over time—they release new playlists and new workouts every few months. 

 

BODYPUMP™️ playlists are practices in synchronization and muscle memory: over time, each song unconsciously prompts a set of exercises. Playlist #112 included a warm-up track (NOTD, Felix Jaehn, “So Close”), squat track (Young Bombs, “Starry Eyes”), chest track (5S0S “Killer Queen”), back track (RL Grime, “UCLA”), tricep track (PINK, “Hustle”), bicep track (Apashe, “Dies Irae”), lunge track (Deorro, Henry Fong and Elvis Crespo “Pica”), shoulders track (Steve Aoki and Alok “Do it Again”), abs track (LSD, “No New Friends”) and ends with a stretching track (Labrinth, “Miracle”). In many ways, “Do it Again” represents the platonic ideal of a BODYPUMP™️ song. It has a clear beat, which makes it far easier to establish a proper rhythm for exercises, and it’s quite explicit: a low male voice commands, do it again, and you find yourself doing shoulder raises again and again and again. By contrast, “Killer Queen,” a perfectly fine song, but it “just doesn’t work” as one woman liked to declare with authority every class. It’s impossible to get the timing right: your chest presses always end up off beat and it’s hard to stay motivated. As I internalized the playlist and learned the carefully orchestrated workout, I found myself grateful for the constancy of the class but longing for community.


The new national membership program at the YMCA solved one problem of long distance. With a single monthly investment, I could be part of two communities and use the Y in both Philadelphia and South Carolina. When I returned to the West Philadelphia YMCA last fall, I was comforted to see familiar faces from five years ago. They welcomed me back into the fold as they helped me set up my bench. But the class was entirely different: instead of a set of exercises that shifted with biological rhythms, it was the same playlist as in South Carolina, the same exercises. The West Philadelphia YMCA’s bodypump class—an ever-changing combination of cardio and strength training—had become BODYPUMP™️.

After years of discontinuity and dislocation, this shared playlist was a revelation. Perhaps Benedict Anderson was right! Perhaps communities were forged amongst people who will never meet through the sense of a “meanwhile.” Anderson makes this case in Imagined Communities, where he suggests that people learned how to imagine themselves as part of a nation through two print forms: the novel and the newspaper. For him, these forms teach people that they are traveling through time together. In my research on the nineteenth-century novel, I’m somewhat suspicious of Anderson’s account—time is so messy in Victorian novels! It really isn’t shared!—but realizing that the squat track was the same in Philadelphia and South Carolina brought me a great deal of comfort. Maybe I wasn’t just endlessly moving between places. Maybe, I was moving through time and space alongside other people.

But the more classes I attended at the West Philadelphia YMCA, the less I found comfort in an abstract understanding of meanwhile. The songs elicited joy because of the embodied movement that accompanied them, not the shared structure they established. When “Killer Queen” began to play, everyone would groan because they would have to concentrate on the timing and inevitably get it wrong. “Pica’s” up-tempo beat inspired improvisation—women would start dancing even before the exercises began. The scramble between tricep pushups and weighted exercises during “Hustle” brought delightful chaos. When doing bicep curls to the building energy of  “Dies Irae,” I’d look around the room and really feel the lyrics, Cause I’m a beast. Where you at? With the women of West Philadelphia, the playlist was no longer about synchronizing songs and movements so that exercises became automatic, although that did happen—it was about being present with a group of people who made the most of a playlist that was both inspiring and frustrating in turn. In Philly, the music mattered.

There was no longer talk of periods in this new era of BODYPUMP™️ at the West Philadelphia YMCA, but there was a sense of shared suffering and shared pleasure. And this suffering and pleasure wasn’t about people we’d never meet, it was about people in the room—people that you’d also run into on the street when going about daily life in the neighborhood. When this happened, you’d inevitably make jokes about not being able to get the BODYPUMP™️ soundtrack out of your head because you couldn’t and you knew that they couldn’t either. Sometimes, fellow class members would even sing scraps of songs as a greeting.

 

Letting myself revel in the embodied community forged in the bodypump class ultimately created another form of continuity: that between my body and my mind. After years of traveling between places, I had gotten pretty good at using my mind to suppress my body. I did more and more work on less and less sleep; I tried to be an active member of two communities, ignoring my deep-seated desire for much-needed rest; I even finished a draft of my book in the midst of a bed bug infestation that made me itch all over and caused red welts to appear across my face at random times (I say “bed bug” purposefully: there was a singular bed bug enacting months of terror). Eventually, I found it harder and harder to be at peace in my mind: I needed to listen to my body.

 

My anthem for this renewed sense of embodiment while working in a profession that only wants you to be a mind (and certainly doesn’t want you to be a human being) is the back track of Bodypump #112 Playlist, “UCLA.” As the song puts it:

She just moved to L.A.

Go to UCLA

And she drive a Maserati

Damn she got a body

She be tryna party

She be tryna party

 

I willfully misread the lyrics, of course. For me, this song is about the many moves that my life has asked me to make—all the times that I’ve traveled to and between places. I’ve even moved to L.A.—just like in the song! But, it’s also about claiming a body as well as a mind in the face of these moves. I won’t ever drive a Maserati for reasons too many to count but my regular classes at the West Philadelphia YMCA remind me that I’m still “tryna party”—trying to revel in the music that communal spaces help you hear.

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