Fit Mama Friday – Meet Zoe

My Fit Mama Friday today, Zoe, is happily married and the mama bear to two daughters, Angel One (her eldest) and Angel Two (her youngest). Living in rural Australia, to say Zoe and her family live in an isolated area would be an understatement. In fact, she has to drive more than 90 miles before reaching the nearest traffic light. When Angel One’s ongoing health problems became overwhelming and Zoe needed an outlet, she surprised even herself by turning to dance. She is chronicling her unusual story of a mother’s journey into adult beginner ballet on blog, Bush Ballerina.

Meet Zoe.

Fit Mama Friday - Meet Zoe.

So Zoe, let’s start by talking about what fitness meant for you before your decision to begin learning ballet as an adult. Did you dance as a child?

Fitness and I have always had a hot and cold relationship. As a child I had a compromised immune system, food intolerances and undiagnosed asthma. I fluctuated between being very ill, and being kinda okay-ish. I was never firing on all cylinders. Most sporting activities were pretty much lost on me. For some reason, I didn’t get any enjoyment out of wheezing and puffing my way around a sports field.

My health improved after age 14, which allowed me to get around more and in turn gave me a much better fitness level. I continued to be pretty fit through my 20’s, although I must say that I always struggled with the more full-on cardio stuff. Could never jog or run.

As far as dance went, as a child I took jazz ballet, contemporary ballet and tap classes before I became too ill to continue at around age 10. Then in my late teens, I tried a few dance classes again.

Over the past 7 years, for a variety of reasons, fitness and I drifted back into a cold phase. I was back to having shocking asthma, a highly allergic system and many food intolerances.

Did you feel like exercise was a special form of punishment because your illnesses were hampering you? Or, were you frustrated that you couldn’t be more active?

It’s easy to start to believe that you’re that sick kid who can’t do what everyone else can do. Whenever I tried to participate in sports, I always collapsed earlier than everyone else. It was very discouraging and over time it led me to give up on things easily because I didn’t want to feel the struggle. You start to lower your expectations of yourself.  I think that “can’t do” belief definitely burrowed deep into my unconscious.

During my fitter years, I did better, but the asthma issue was always still there. Anytime I tried to do an activity, like a dance class, I always had to sit part of it out. It’s ironic that asthma improves when you keep using your lungs more. To become fit despite having asthma, you need to work your cardio really hard. When you first start working out, you get to that point where your lungs are on fire and you feel like you’re going to pass out and vomit, really quite quickly. Like you might get there after only walking briskly for 3 minutes on a flat road. So it’s really easy to feel like you’re never going to get anywhere, and just give up. You think, “Wow, I’m THAT unfit! This is too hard.” That’s where I was a couple of months ago.

How did having a low fitness level impact you in terms of motherhood? 

I had Angel One during my fitter/healthier stage. I used to throw her in a backpack and walk everywhere with her. She then became a very busy toddler who I needed to keep up with, so that kept me moving. I was still somewhat fit when Angel Two came along. I basically walked everywhere I possibly could, rather than drive. Sometimes that meant walking 30 mins to buy milk or an hour to go to playgroup. For several years we lived near the ocean. That was lovely as we used to try to get down for a daily beach walk.

As with every other time in my life, asthma was still there. I had a better cardio capacity than earlier on, but running or swimming very far was out of the question. And I still didn’t challenge it.

I know that your eldest daughter, Angel One, has struggled with illness for quite some time. I’m sure that your own well-being and fitness was the furthest thing from your mind when you began dealing with that, but it must have been hard, not having an outlet to relieve your stress.

Angel One has been ill for a few years. The level of worry you have for a chronically ill child is huge. It brings a lot of stress with it and suffocates your own emotional needs, if you allow it to.

All the natural emotions you feel in that situation like sadness, anger, frustration and resentment existed, but I pushed them aside. I think if you don’t acknowledge those things they just manifest somewhere else in your body. For me it was manifesting as depression. But it was really tricky to spot. I have experienced emotional ups and downs in my life and I have suffered anxiety in the past. So I knew what it felt like when I was in a slump. But realizing the difference between a slump and something more serious is not easy. You keep telling yourself it’s just another slump. I’ll feel better after this next appointment, when we’ve contacted this doctor, when finances improve… But those things happen and you don’t feel better.

My hardest moment was around a year ago. After years of searching for answers, we were told by a specialist that there were no answers to our daughter’s condition. I realized that we were no longer discussing what might be causing her pain, but rather how to manage it. I went into that appointment with a sense of hope — and I left it with a script for a powerful pain medication that would sedate my daughter, and new questions about wheelchairs and muscle wastage.

That specialist was our last mainstream medical resort. So to hear him say there was nothing more he could do, was shattering. All I can really remember about the 4 hour drive home that day, was that I felt like my life was ending.

I’m so sorry. That must have been the worst day of your life. And then to have to travel for such a long time to come home to pretty much isolation – did that exacerbate your pain and worry? Or is it soothing to be living somewhere so peaceful?

Living rurally just magnified everything. We have this beautiful mountainous property with the most gorgeous valley and river views. It is teeming with wildlife and and is a very peaceful place to come home to. But we have to drive 150kms before we even see a set of traffic lights. You can’t just step out for a quick cuppa at a cafe, or go lose yourself at the movies or go out with a friend.

Fit Mama Friday - Meet Zoe

You said before that your tension and worry was manifesting in your body as depression – when and how did you become aware that you were depressed?

I have some wonderful family members who checked in with me and ask me how I was going, but I couldn’t stop and truly see how I was feeling. I was terrified that if I did that I would fall apart and not be able to pull it together again. I’m also a very private person and I find it hard to open up about those sorts of emotional things (despite what telling my life story in this interview might suggest!)

So a few months ago, when I first realized that I had been in a slump for longer than normal. I kept my eye on it for a couple of weeks. Just noting my thoughts each day and my general outlook on life, and I could see myself losing sight of the future. I could no longer see anything good happening in my life. It was different to the slumps I had experienced before. It was like slipping into a dull foggy numbness. And it was becoming permanent. Luckily I recognized it. And luckily I have a wonderful husband who helped me dissect my thoughts and get a clearer picture of what was going on.

It scared me quite a lot and I knew I had to make a change to drag myself out of the fog. I had the idea to try to find something I could get involved in that would inspire me to reengage with my life and my future. Something that was just for me.

And, of course, you took the obvious route and decided to become a ballerina.  Have you always loved ballet?

I think the first time my love of dance was ignited was the night that my mother took me to see 42nd street. I just about died, watching the dancers. I couldn’t believe such a magic existed. Also, as a child I took dance classes at Bodenweiser dance school in Sydney. I loved the school and I loved the teachers, particularly the principal, Chappie (Margaret Chapple). She somehow managed to help her students achieve great technique without losing their love for dance. She was a gorgeous woman. Inspiring.

Zoe always had a dramatic flair...

Zoe always had a dramatic flair…

So, the love of ballet and dance was already there – What made you decide to try it as an adult? And how do you even get to classes when you live so far from the nearest town?

Ballet was the one dance form that I had never really tried properly because I was so intimidated by the strength and stamina that was needed. I think I really liked the idea of that challenge. My husband also remembered my love of dance and we discussed the idea of me trying to get involved in it again. But, yes, as you mention, there were some obvious obstacles like living so far away from any beginner adult ballet classes. Also, things were tight financially. Essentially, I couldn’t take any in-person classes.

At first I thought I was completely mad. Taking up ballet now, at age 35, without a teacher! But a few days passed and my thoughts about ballet continued to linger. So after a few days of these silly ballet thoughts, I decided to google “adult beginner ballet”, mainly to reassure myself that I was, in fact, mad. But rather than seeing proof that I was mad, in that google search, the first link I clicked on was an article about a ballet teacher in Sydney who was giving adults the chance to come back and learn ballet again, or to start from complete beginners level.

I knew that as I was reading, I was talking myself into this crazy idea. One of the things that stood out the most was what this teacher’s students were quoted as saying about him. They said they were treated like any other ballet student, with no concessions for age. They were expected to give 100%. That reminded me of Chappie’s work ethic and really appealed to me.

Having tight finances made physically setting up for ballet pretty simple. I announced to the family that our lounge room was going to become a ballet studio every night for 90 mins. I use an old dining chair as my barre. I practice at night so that I can use my reflections in the windows as mirrors for corrections. I don’t actually own a full length mirror at all.

I started in tights that I already owned, a tee-shirt and socks. I downloaded ballet class music and started to learn what each of the exercises was supposed to look like. This is really hard – as a beginner you don’t know how to tell what is a correct position and what is not. I watch a lot of videos on ballet exercises/moves and I recently started to watch whole ballets, which I had never done before.

Fit Mama Friday - Meet Zoe. Dancing in the Australian Bush.

And has it changed your life? Do you feel fitter? Better able to be an amazing mum?

The world disappears when I dance. I am fully in the moment. No worries. No thoughts. If I’m worrying about anything while I dance, it means I’m not working hard enough. There’s only one way to finish a ballet class, and that’s drenched in sweat. I also get a great emotional release when I dance.

Ballet helps me to feel more positive about our search for Angel One’s healing. Before ballet, when depression was setting in, I found it hard to see any hope at all. Of course, we still have hope. We reached the end with conventional medicine, so now we are looking into alternative therapies and methods.

My cardio is better than it has been in years. I can walk up to the top of our mountain now without stopping to blackout. My husband and I walked up the other day to take the photos for this interview, and he was puffing more than me! Neither of us could believe it. I love feeling my body change and become stronger. It is so empowering.

My girls are so sweet. I think at first they thought mummy was a bit silly starting to do ballet in the lounge room, but now they are so supportive, and I am a happier and calmer mother, definitely.

Fit Mama Friday - Meet Zoe.

So, how are you going with it? Have you had any breakthrough moments? Any achievements you weren’t expecting?

Well, I just did my first pirouette without slamming into a wall. That seemed impossible to me a few weeks ago, and achieving it has shown me that I can break down my negative self-beliefs. I only just recently achieved being able to touch my toes – my inflexibility is incredibly frustrating sometimes.

I would love, one day,  to be able to have enough balance, flexibility, technique and core strength to perform a really beautiful ballet piece with grace and control. My parents are directing a rural, Australian version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and they have asked me to choreograph a dance for it. I’d like to get through that without making a fool of myself.

Fit Mama Friday - Meet Zoe.

And tell me about your blog, Bush Ballerina (formerly Mummarina). What made you decide to blog about your journey?

I am passionate about the adult dance movement. I know that there are many women and men who wish they could transition from the sidelines to the dance floor, and with all these beautiful souls opening up adult ballet/dance classes, it is possible, but I think a lot of people don’t know how to get started. I want to do all I can to promote it, so as well as my blog, I started a page on Facebook, where I can promote dance schools who are teaching adult ballet/dance classes. I hope to start conversations about what it’s like to start or return to ballet later in life: the nerves, the successes, the concerns. I want to make the adult ballet world accessible in people’s minds.

What’s next for you, apart from the big goal of choreographing for your parents’ ballet? Do you think you’ll take any in-person classes now that your practice is improving?

I do want to get to in-person ballet classes with the teacher that I read about in the initial article I read, to help me better my technique and position. We will be in Sydney for some medical treatment for Angel One in a couple of months so I am hoping to line up some classes while I am there. That makes me feel nervous and excited.

I also have this one ridiculous dream. I’d love to someday mimic my favorite photo of ballerina Polina Semionova. The photo is taken from behind her as she stands on stage, en pointe, looking out onto an empty theater. It is just striking to me. I have done a novice version of it on my blog, but I would love to properly mimic her pose in the photo, in some theater somewhere. That would be so much fun.

Zoe, I have to say, this has been the most unusual Fit Mama Friday story yet! 🙂 I think it’s wonderful you were able to really transform your life and help your depression through ballet despite so many obvious obstacles – it’s inspiring! Thanks for being a Fit Mama.

Here’s how you can get in contact with Zoe, or follow her story on her blog:

Bush Ballerina

Twitter

Facebook

 

Fit Mama Friday – Fit Dad Friday

Every Friday on Fine Fit Day I feature a Fit Mama or a Fit Dad story of how and why a fit and healthy mama or dad ensures fitness is a priority in her or his life. You’ll read about all kinds of parents and their fitness stories. Some are stay-at-home parents, some are single parents, some juggle more than one job on top of parenthood, but they are all committed to a fit and healthy lifestyle. As you’re getting ready for your weekend, I hope you’re inspired to be active after reading about these kick-ass mamas and dads on Fit Mama Friday – Fit Dad Friday!
 
Do you want to be featured on Fit Mama Friday? Or do you know someone you’d like to see featured? Please contact me for details!

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Love this story – the fact that Zoe didn’t let obstacles stand in her way and found a way to learn ballet is amazing!!! Very cool to see how dancing has helped her cope with the other areas of her life!

  2. A wonderful interview! I have been following Mummarina’s blog from the beginning and it was so good to learn more about her and her passion for dancing. She has inspired me more!

    • She is so inspiring! The dedication necessary for doing it all on her own at home is amazing. Even more wonderful, a client of mine who is a retired professional ballerina checked out Zoe’s blog and said she has natural talent and excellent form, and should pursue it further! 🙂

  3. Amazing what perseverance can do! Ballet is amazing…so uplifting! Anything that helps us to maintain our health and body! I also keep working out and I prefer to use this motivade app to keep track of my dacing activities. I have found it useful. Might be useful for other people also. Its available on google play page http://bit.ly/121gefn.

  4. Great story! 😀

  5. Felicity says:

    Love it! I want to copy….

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