Look closely and you'll see them: otherwise demure women busting a move on the dance floor to music that, in the past, they might not have danced to outside of the privacy of their homes. Reggaeton, Latin house, mambo, calypso, bongra, cumbia, samba, hip-hop and just about every subgenre in between.
Not to go against the tide of post-race relations, but the phenomenon isn't limited to, well, white chicks. All races. Old, young, big, small. What's going on here?
“In our culture, people are afraid to dance unless they're drunk,” says Cybele Peña, a dance instructor for more than 10 years who's specialized in everything from Afro-Cuban to traditional Venezuelan dancing. “Something we can take from Latin America is that everybody there dances. If you put something in a format that still honors the dance and you give it a new name, it can make people feel like they can actually dance.”
That name is Zumba. First off, Zumba is not a type of dance. It's fitness instruction that happens to be based in Latin American dance (salsa, samba, merengue, just to name a few) but can also incorporate things like belly-dancing and hip-hop dance. Second, it's a trademarked, multimillion-dollar business with tens of thousands of certified instructors and millions of DVDs in circulation. Chances are, if you have a gym membership, the place offers a Zumba class.
According to most accounts, Zumba began humbly in the mid-'90s, when trainer and choreographer Alberto “Beto” Perez began teaching dance-fitness classes in Colombia. The first American class was in Miami around 2000 when Perez teamed up with two investors to officially launch Zumba Fitness. It's been steadily growing in popularity ever since. Cybele Peña was teaching a similar class at the Copley Family YMCA called “Latin Rhythms Cardio” around the time, and while she made the name up, it was so similar to Zumba that she now says she wouldn't be able to teach it without getting into trouble.
“It's a crazy business now. You go back and you pay them again so you can get the Zumba Gold or the Zumba Toning certificate,” says Peña, who teaches Zumba at Kava Lounge. “I felt some kind of conflict about it in the beginning, because now I had pay to get a certification to do dancing I already knew how to do.”
Peña ultimately decided to get certified, and you can't blame her. Looking online, a potential Zumba student can find all kinds of testimonials on its health benefits: It “works every muscle in the body” (CNN.com); “It tones the abdominals” (healthmad.com); it'll “help to reduce stress” (OutOfStress.com). Even the U.S. Army offers classes to soldiers on military bases. And in this Dancing with the Stars-crazed world, give someone the opportunity to shake their tail feather while also burning up to 900 calories in an hour, and they'll come running.
Still, while it might be tempting to naysay something that's become as corporate and ubiquitous as Zumba, its real benefits might be more mental than physical. At a recent packed class at Queen Bee's Cultural Center in North Park (I happily participated), Rosie Velez took her students through a rigorous, 14-song routine that included everything from flamenco music to R&B. The workout can sometimes be strenuous and certainly sweaty, but unless the dancer is ridiculously out of shape, rarely does the heart rate ascend to dizzying levels or breathing become dangerously difficult.
Velez is quick to point out that “anyone can do it” (perhaps noticing the clear minority of men in her classes), and everyone in the class seemed to agree that it's the confidence they gain from the classes, not so much the physical activity, that keeps them coming back.
“It's more like going out dancing rather than actually exercising,” says Kelly freeborn, a London transplant who's been attending Velez's classes for about a year. “I don't think I'd stick with it if it wasn't fun.”
Whether Zumba is like Yoga (here to stay) or Tae Bo (a passing trend) remains to be seen. Peña says she'll continue to teach it primarily because she knows that there are so many people like her in the gym who hate working out on treadmills and spinning classes.
“The movements in Zumba might make people feel good in their body even if they don't necessarily consider themselves dancers. I'm talking all body types,” she says. “Maybe they've never moved their body in their life. So many people who come think that they can't dance and then they find they can. Everybody should dance. It makes you feel happy. It opens up your spirit.”
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