Covid, coat hooks and community

It’s 2019 – I’m queuing in the entrance to a bustling brunch spot for a skillet of something vegan.  My partner is outside, scouting out alternatives – it seems unlikely that the harried staff will find space for us here – until it emerges that our visiting friends have already made it inside.

We are directed to a table – reclaimed, with chic chipped paint and an awkward shape – although we may have to give up a corner of it at any moment to a stranger.  Personal space is sacrificed here for the chance of a more sociable experience; a conversation with a solo traveller, wisdom from a dishevelled elder or – as legend has it – the possibility of sipping flat whites with that guy from Mumford & Sons.  The seating, you see, is communal.  It’s part of the charm – it’s not about squeezing a few more people in – it’s about rubbing shoulders, literally, with the great and the good of our fair city.  After all, when it comes to obtaining caffeine and avocados we (the great and the good) are all in it together!  When asked by our visitors where to meet for brunch, this is the place that’s top of our list.  We – like everyone else here – want to look like we’re part of it.

We tuck in our elbows and scrape in our chairs.  I become aware of palpitations which may be mild social anxiety, or may be the effects of our coffees arriving long before I’ve been able to line my stomach with sourdough.  Our bearded brunch companion is saying something wry about the use of “community” to mean “customers”.  I laugh, but we haven’t been in touch for a while and I suppose he hasn’t seen the strapline of my fledgling business; “Your local Pilates community”.  Cringe.

He’s right of course – it’s cynical, a transparent marketing ploy – and yet, it’s one that, in my experience, fulfills its own promise.  Since becoming a bricks and mortar business-owner (as opposed to an anchorless self-employed Pilates teacher), I’ve realised that a community springs up around a place with the merest whisper of welcome.  My Instagram handle talks about community – and my website, facebook page, probably my LinkedIn profile, I don’t know – but it’s a place, a physical space, that makes it real.  And, it turns out, when that place is off limits for the sake of public health (you may have heard of something called covid-19), a strong enough community sustains itself nevertheless.

I’m not a naturally gregarious person.  I don’t have a girl gang, I don’t like being made to meet my partner’s friends, and when I had a proper job, I avoided post-work drinks at all costs.  What I do have is clients – a word which feels jarringly cold when it describes the people who give me purpose, fulfilment and support week-in, week-out.  These are the people – aside from my partner, family, and a very select few – into whom I pour all of my energy and affection.

The comedian Simon Amstell describes being able to perform stand-up – something which seems so contrary to his introversion – in terms of control and boundaries. In Amstell’s job it’s clear what his role is, what his relationship is to the audience – they have paid him to make them laugh, and they’ve paid him for his vulnerability.  In my job, it’s clear what my relationship is to a class – I can teach you how to move well, I can advise you on your back pain, and whilst I’m at the front of the room I might as well try to be lamely entertaining too.  I’ve probably revealed more about my personal life at the front of a Pilates class than I ever would over coffee (though that’s not to say the same for wine).  This timetabled and paid-for gathering is the moss pole around which my social monstera grows.

I’m not so naive as to think of all of my clients as friends; some are, but one of the wonderful, liberating, things about a community is that it doesn’t demand the same intimacy as friendship.  When a group of Pilates People (that’s what I call my clients – feel free to cringe again) go for coffee together, the invitation is open to everybody who is putting on their shoes after class.  It’s a loose enough arrangement to be freely inclusive – you just need to be present.  Not “Present” (this is Pilates, not yoga).  Just present.  Just in that place, at that time.

As for that place… my studio has been described as a “happy place”, a “safe space”, an “oasis”. It’s at the top of an old wonky building, with a sloping floor and large, precarious windows over a fairly busy road into the city.  It has fairy lights, house plants and mats, sure, but it is far from being purpose built – instead, it has had its purpose designated.  This is the space where we do Pilates.  You don’t need to be young or old, you don’t need to be fat or thin, you don’t need to be a parent, a carer, a student, an office-worker, an athlete, a retiree.  You just need to be here.

At the end of March 2020, “here” was taken away from us.  Before teaching my final class, I remember looking over at the coat hooks to savour the sight of jumbled coats and bags.  I’d done the same only 16 months earlier when I’d opened the studio – elated at mundane evidence that people had actually turned up to my classes.  Now, empty coat hooks loomed again.  Closing the studio doors, I feared, would remove gravity – we’d all float out of orbit and back to our disparate lives.

Almost four months later, it turns out that our community was not a solar system – it was a galaxy.  The studio has become not “Here”, but “here, and here, and here”.  It is my living room, many living rooms, and spare rooms and studies across the city – even a yard or a rooftop on sunny days.  Despite being scattered, we’re not that far apart – if I hear a siren pass the end of my street, I’ll hear it again on Zoom moments later, as it drives by a client’s front room.  Some days, we can even track the rain sweeping across the city.  The coffee mornings continue, and there are real friendships there – I join occasionally but mostly stay quiet, witnessing swells of support for whoever needs it that week.  Sometimes it’s me, but mostly being able to continue teaching keeps me afloat.

Perhaps I was wrong about bricks and mortar.  Like glitter without glue, not being in one place makes our presence all the more ubiquitous and apparent.  There have even been days on which I’ve wondered whether I should move online for good; other teachers, whether by necessity or choice, have done just that. Business-wise, a ‘virtual studio’ ought to make sense – online, growth is unlimited; the whole world is a potential client.  There are certainly no old sloping floors on the internet, in the same way that there are no awkwardly shaped tables at McDonalds – everything is efficient, smooth, cost-effective.  When the whole world is your customer, nobody is your community.

The internet flattens us.  The bodies that I teach have become two dimensional; textures are smoothed; the frown lines and grimaces by which I re-shape my class plans have become slightly pixelated; and there is no reward in cracking bad jokes when everyone is on mute.  At the risk of sounding petulant, I don’t want to teach flat people.  Or at least, I want to teach people who’s habits I know, who’s needs I understand, who’s lives I care about because of idle conversations we’ve had when they’ve arrived awkwardly early for a class.  It seems almost too obvious to remark that living at least part of our lives online seems irreversible, but there’s a reason that there’s a location setting on Tinder.  We can meet people online, but most of us wouldn’t really feel we’d met someone until we’d done so in person.  That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t Whatsapp them after the date, or stalk them on Instagram, or check back on their profile to guess exactly how long ago they took that picture, but we’d need a second date to double check.  Life has become an interweaving of online and in-person.

So, as my partner and I haul a giant, flat screen TV up three wonky flights of stairs for my Zoom classes, I resolve to make my studio the place of that intersection.  I’m switching gravity back on, but I’ll keep the satellites blinking too.  I’ve re-purposed the coat hooks as plant hangers.  They look pretty good, for now.