When I walked into the First Congregational Church to go to my first Zumba class, I saw much of what I expected: about 35 women, mostly over age 30, dressed in exercise gear.
Pretty standard for a group exercise class – or so I thought. As soon as the first song, a fast-paced blend of Latin and hip-hop music, started blaring from the speakers, I knew I was in for something different. Led by the exuberant instructor, Becky Miner, all of the women in the room started dancing to this loud, young music. And I am not just talking about the foxtrot, but sexy, athletic dancing.
To be fair, I’d never heard of Zumba before. I’d actually gotten it confused with “Roomba,” the round, robotic vacuum cleaner that pings off your furniture to clean your house. “Zumba is a kind of dance-party fitness,” according to its official website, zumba.com. Zumba was born from a felicitous accident – a Colombian fitness instructor, Alberto “Beto” Perez, arrived at his aerobics class one day without his aerobics music. He had to improvise, so he put on the music he had in his car – salsa and merengue – and just started dancing. His aerobics class loved it. And thus Zumba began, eventually expanding its choreography to include hip-hop, martial arts, mambo, samba and belly dancing.
“Zumba is now in over a hundred countries around the world,” Miner told me after class. “It’s an exercise class for everyone. In my 13 classes a week, I teach men and women of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels,” she said. Though the class I took part in was mostly made up of older women, Miner teaches a impressive age range, spanning ages 11 to 71. When I pressed her on how many men she teaches, though, she admitted that only about four show up weekly, and that they are not regulars. I wasn’t surprised to hear this – the kind of dancing in Zumba involves a lot of hip swaying, arm movement and booty shaking reminiscent of belly dancing, not the sort of dancing many men would feel comfortable doing in public.
However, men would have nothing to fear from Zumba were they to attend a class. “The best thing about Zumba is that you’re never judged,” Miner said. “People aren’t watching you. Nobody is seeing those bits that shake.” Thank goodness for that, because I was unattractively red-faced and sweaty within just a few minutes, and there were definitely bits shaking that I didn’t want other people watching shake. Luckily, Zumba was exactly as Miner said – nonjudgmental. As an interloper, I was on the lookout for evaluative stares from the other attendees, but they never came. Quite frankly, the quick pace of the dancing made it impossible to watch other people too closely. If one were to start, one would quickly get left behind in the moves.
Despite their accepting attitudes towards others’ jiggly bits, many of the women are in Zumba to lose weight. Most of the participants in the class did not have supermodel physiques, including Miner herself, which I found reassuring. They were just regular women, ranging from normal to slightly overweight. Miner told me that taken collectively, people in her classes have lost over 1000 pounds. “Zumba is great for weight loss,” she said.
Just a few minutes into the class, I could see why. The dancing is fast-paced and involves your whole body. I was the youngest person in the room, and I was out of breath long before the first song ended. Though, as Miner noted, the appearance of health doesn’t necessarily correspond to greater fitness. “Part of what I think Zumba teaches is that strong and healthy is far greater than young or skinny. I know larger women who are healthier than women who are size two,” she said.
At Zumba, I noted a certain joy permeating the room that I’d never noted in another kind of exercise class. Usually people are grim, energized just enough to be there working out, but nothing more. At Zumba, the women seemed quite thrilled to be shakin’ it, even singing unabashedly to parts of songs like LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” and echoing Miner’s occasional shouts of “Yeah!” in time with the music (albeit much more faintly by the end of class). There were lots of smiles. It didn’t seem to matter that I had no idea what any of the steps were. Nobody shot me dirty looks. Instead, many caught my eye and waved or winked. They seemed to want to share their excitement with everyone else.
For people looking for a good workout in a friendly environment, I would definitely recommend Zumba. More energizing than running or weight lifting, it’s a fun, fast-paced workout and something that truly anyone with a hint of rhythm can enjoy.