The athleticism of Beyonce
"I remember the moss on the trees, I remember running through the sprinklers, those summers, those popsicles. I remember running as hard as I could, and my dad knew I needed his approval, and I think my father wouldn't give it to me because he kept pushing me and kept pushing me and kept pushing me. Every time my dad pushed me, I got better and stronger." ---Beyoncé, "Life is but a Dream," 2013
In the era of my teenage girlhood, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles was very familiar to me. Driven by an athletic prowess cultivated in us by our fathers, we were on the same team -- Southern, black girls, who would never be as thin as Maria Sharapova but who were determined to be strong-spirited, to be the best at whatever we did.
Like Beyoncé, when the humidity thickened into the heaviest heat of the summer, I knew it was time to run. I would sprint, with my team, up and down the bleachers of a school gym equipped with large industrial fans that rarely caused the damp air to budge. I would run around a buckled track that had dandelions and wild grasses growing at its edges. Eventually, I'd return to those laps in my adult life as the stakes rose with my own success.
Beyoncé started out in a harsher climate in Houston, a city with heat thicker than that of my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. Her coach was her father. The members of Destiny's Child were her team. She learned to cycle through the athlete's seasons, and this fundamental training would sharpen her into the greatest performer of my "millennial" lifetime.
What she did on stage said every loud thing to me. She was never too glamorous to break a sweat. She was curvy but fit, and when she talked, her voice came out in a low drawl that swallowed the ends of her words and released them in declarations of power.
Perhaps this tenacity is why first lady Michelle Obama, herself an advocate for physical fitness, thought it was best to choose Queen B for the White House's nationwide initiative against childhood obesity, and why FLOTUS has even joked, on multiple occasions, about wanting to be Beyoncé.
Artistic craft and athleticism aren't that different. Beyoncé approaches her work with principles similar to those champions live by: You see her same attitude in the proactive hustle of Serena Williams' enterprising plays, the precision of Gabby Douglas' routines. The best moments in sports are the result of the same gorgeously crafted technique that makes for inspiring art. Think Michael Jordan's iconic flight from the free throw line and the drama of Steph Curry's 400th 3-pointer.
Yoncé has always been the shooter that stays alone in the gym when there is no one left to rebound. As a result of this work ethic, she will frequently perform a physical feat that spurs our collective heart into adrenaline-fueled rapture. For example, she transformed a near-fall into a graceful jump squat, live and in heels, before syncing right back into her signature high-energy choreography during her Super Bowl 50 halftime show appearance. Another time, she danced and sang a span of four octaves while five months pregnant, again live and in heels, at the 2011 MTV Video Music awards.
My father belongs to the generation that stubbornly refuses to offer its approval for anything us younger folks do. Nothing is done the way it used to be. We just aren't made the same. Usain Bolt isn't worth the salt in Carl Lewis' sweat. Bruno Mars couldn't shine Prince's shoes. But in her Super Bowl show, which exceeded the length of an NBA quarter at 13 minutes, Beyoncé's coordination and stamina were incomparable, and even my father had to admit that she was "the greatest performer since Michael Jackson."
As I've watched her accumulate victories and secure independence, Beyoncé has been a model for me. Her system has been a scale by which to measure my own work ethic. In sweet, recent time, I have witnessed her bring images of our black-girl, thick-fit, voluptuous-muscular bodies to the foreground. It took a couple of decades. It took agility, energy, drive, strategy, running the plays over and over again, in heels, but here we are on enormous screens, on the most-watched television events in America. Here are Serena Williams and Beyoncé on the courts of their sports, blurring the lines between athlete and artist. Here we are. Look at what we do in these bodies. Look at where we come from.
Beyoncé the athlete goes home to her childhood house, to that park in her mind, to remember the vision, to triumph over whatever heat-heavy fear, whatever thing is trying to silence her, to see the distance she has come. I go back to a blacktop that shares space with the wild, to a big country city in the middle of nowhere, thick with honeysuckle and bees.
Joy Priest is a writer living in Newark, New Jersey. She has received scholarships and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Joy has twice been a finalist for the Rita Dove International Poetry Award, and her work can be found in Best New Poets 2014 and The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop.