Josie Ortega tests out the Latin dance class that promises fitness, fun, and a transformative attitude toward exercise: Zumba.
The night I returned home from my first Zumba class I grinned and I told my husband, “This is going to change my life.” It turned out to be true, but not necessarily in the way that I’d envisioned.
Four months after the birth of my third child, I was looking for a way to shake up my exercise routine. (And by “shakeup,” I mean I was looking to have some kind of exercise routine.) So I committed to attending Zumba class twice a week in the evenings after bedtime, during the six weeks before Easter.
Zumba class doesn’t quite fall into the traditional Lenten categories of fasting, charity, and prayer. But let’s count it: I gave up two evenings of personal Netflix time, in order to embrace something better. Taking on a practice of exercise—which is a boon to both physical and emotional health—is consistent with the spirit of stripping away that which keeps me from my true self.
But enough with the over-spiritualizing. What’s the deal with Zumba?
With a combination of salsa, hip hop, merengue, and aerobics class moves, Zumba kicked my booty that first night. . . and I had a great time. My body enjoyed the tough workout, and my brain engaged with a new challenge.
Zumba is a workout class that mixes all kinds of dance: Latin, hip hop, even some Indian music, and some old school R&B. You’ll be paying close attention at the beginning of each song to follow the instructor’s steps, and soon you’ll catch on to repeating moves. Think: salsa steps, cha-cha, cumbia, grapevine. You’ll have some traditional exercise movesmixed in: jumping jacks, squats. Plus some more freestyle, loose-hipped dance opportunities, which you can get into as much as you’re comfortable. (A little advice from yours truly: Go for it with that body roll; Shake what your mama gave ya.)
Most classes last for an hour or a little under, including warm-up and cool down. You can wear sneakers and comfortable exercise clothes.
Many gyms, including my local YMCA, offer the dance-fitness exercise class. Some instructors offer sessions in church basements, hospitals, and community centers. Check zumba.com to find a class near you. Zumba’s successful business model trains and licenses instructors, then allows them to teach anywhere. It’s a good idea to ask around about well-loved instructors because their teaching style and energy will be key to a successful, enjoyable class.
My instructor Latoya is fun, friendly, entertaining, and encouraging. Here are a few sayings she likes to repeat to the class:
Even in my diverse city, plenty of neighborhoods, restaurants, schools, churches, and other places remain practically segregated by divisions like race or age. A notable exception is the Tuesday evening Zumba class at the Alexandria YMCA. Dance is a universal language!
In my first Zumba class, I noted: one man, several senior ladies (one of whom wore all-purple workout gear, sneakers included); women my age, some younger, some older; white, black, Asian, Hispanic; and one particularly adorable African-American mother-daughter duo. It’s also worth noting that we represented a wide range of sizes.
Clearly, I spent a good bit of time observing the room and taking stock of my fellow dancers. It comes with the mirror-walled territory. Plus, as a Zumba beginner, I needed to look around to get a better handle on the dance steps. But as I returned week after week and became more familiar and competent, I had to come to terms with an even greater challenge: being comfortable just watching myself in the mirror, as our instructors encouraged us to do.
I was neither the best nor the worst dancer. Who cares! Whoever was there, we were all there for the same reason. It was empowering to let go, to bust a move, to be silly and laugh at my missteps. And to find the confidence to stare myself in the face.
Many people ask: Does Zumba dance help in reducing body fat or weight loss? Well, Zumba is a calorie-burning cardio workout. The secret weapon to Zumba’s fitness success isn’t that it burns way more calories than comparable aerobic exercise, but that it’s sustainable. Any movement is great for our bodies, right? I used to run a lot, but don’t anymore; I don’t enjoy it like I once did. And sometimes I swim for exercise . . . but I do it for 15 minutes, and that’s enough for me. I’m all set.
While I won’t run or elliptical or swim for an hour, I will dance Zumba for an hour, because it’s fun. There’s a teacher up front driving the train, there are dancers surrounding me who aren’t quitting after just a couple of songs. Statistics showthat people more successfully stick with exercise when they’re with friends or a group. And I’d wager that people who listen to Marc Anthony while they exercise are fitter than ever before! Someone should conduct a study.
I liked it when my daughter began to ask during the week, “Are you going to exercise tonight, Mama?”
My kids saw the importance of me having my own activities, my personal time, my fun class, my own steps to stay healthy. My husband normally exercises by going to the gym or taking a run or bike ride in the morning. I hope our kids see that everyone needs to get moving, but everyone can do it a little differently or at different times. It was a good thing for them to see me honestly dealing with my need for exercise apart from lifting them up or pushing a stroller.
Coming to terms with my own body image is a healthy, helpful process for me, but it also has repercussions for my marriage and my children: the way they see themselves, the way they see others, the way my son will treat women, the way my daughters will behave toward food and exercise. I’ve always loved to dance, and Zumba helped me remember who I was when my husband and I first met: someone who danced with abandon at a line-dancing birthday party. (Long story.)
Another thing happened as I got more comfortable at Zumba class. I caught myself entering a zone in which I wasn’t paying such close attention. My mind wandered to unexpected places. There were moments that felt like being jolted awake when I made a misstep, similar to that sudden falling feeling when you’re almost asleep. Was this workout flow? As with sleeping, my mind had a chance to wander freely and scrub itself.
Some joy returned to my body. Curve-friendly Zumba class gave me a space to let go, and to practice watching myself dance, with pride.
Well, I didn’t do a Before and After weigh-in. Couldn’t have if I wanted to since the two-year-old somehow broke our family’s one scale some time close to the beginning of this experiment. No matter: we’re not looking at this from a pure numbers standpoint. I didn’t set a weight goal. I wanted more energy; I wanted to be happier with my body; I wanted things I didn’t realize I wanted until I started dancing Zumba.
While I didn’t return to my pre-baby weight, I did return to myself. Months and years later, I still attend Zumba on Tuesday evenings, as family and life and seasons allow. I’m an athlete again, with a workout uniform that I like. I probably need fresh shoes, but I ordered a new sports bra that I’d been eyeing for a while. I’m also a mom, wife, and WOMAN who shows off killer moves at the family dance party. I’m not even embarrassed! And neither are my kids . . .YET! Just you wait, my pretties.