When I was very small, I did gymnastics and ballet for a year. The ballet experience culminated in an end-of-year recital that included sticking us six-year-olds in sequined and/or feathered leotards, caking our faces in makeup, and dumping buckets of hair gel on our heads. Can you say childhood trauma? I don't specifically remember the performance (I've blocked it out, most likely), but my mother tells me I was less than pleased with all the fuss. I believe her. I have seen pictures. In them, I am wearing that expression particular to small children who feel they have been wronged but cannot quite articulate how - a mixture of confusion, indignation, and reproach. Needless to say, I did not return to ballet.
Conversely, I remember loving gymnastics. I don't recall a whole lot of specifics, but I suspect the foam pit and giant trampolines my erstwhile gym was outfitted with contributed mightily to this love. To my great dismay, however, my family moved to a rural town in Denmark shortly after I'd started really getting into it, and there wasn't any similar program there for me to take advantage of. Gymnastics and ballet both died early deaths.
I didn't return to either activity for many years, during which time I lost my mad flexibility and little-kid belief that faceplants were things that simply didn't happen to me. I was accordingly skeptical when my friend Alex invited me to accompany him to a tumbling club meeting. "I suck!" I lamented, "I'll embarrass myself in front of a bunch of awesome tumblers! You only want me to go because my helpless flopping would entertain you greatly!" He assured me that tumbling was a judgment-free zone, and that even complete beginners were welcome, regardless of how entertaining their 'flopping' may or may not be.
I pulled on my brand-new Oberlin sweatpants and headed out with Alex that first Sunday full of trepidation. The usual tumbling leader was absent that day, but the five or six people who remained asked me my name, went around in a circle and shared things about themselves while we stretched, and were enormously encouraging when I tried my first cartwheel. It almost made me forget that they were doing unreal back handspring chains and butterfly twists while I was struggling with the most basic of tricks. The discrepancy didn't make me feel awkward, though - on the contrary, it just motivated me to try that much harder. I won't pretend that I mastered any moves during my first hour and half of tumbling, but it did rekindle my old love for gymnastics. I've gone faithfully to as many tumbling club meetings as possible since then, and I've loved every single one. Sometimes, other beginners show up and I am not alone in my incompetence, but usually I'm the bottom of the heap - and that's okay! I don't get ragged on for it, and everyone always gets really excited when I learn something new. We tumblers support each other in our tumbling hardships and share our tumbling triumphs.
The sense of community is a pleasantly surprising bonus, but mostly, I just enjoy teaching my body how to do things it thinks are going to destroy it. Sprint at a concrete block? No problem. Vault time. Run, jump, and stretch out to full body length while flying through the air? Piece of cake. Pull out the dive rolls. It doesn't exactly give me a sense of invincibility - more of a sense of vast possibility. If I can learn splits and cartwheels, can I learn roundoffs and handsprings? What about wall spins? Triple twisting double backflips? Quintuple backflip skidoos and toe on double front rigbys? World domination?! (I'm pretty sure those are only a step away from each other. Seriously.)