In the early nineties, when aerobics classes with canned music and fancy spandex fashion were all the rage, there was no way I’d ever be caught dead participating in such a group sweat fest. From what I’d heard about aerobics classes, there was lots of whooping and shouting, and the people I knew who were enthusiastic participants were 20-somethings with perfect figures. A group class like this was hardly the place for a shy, self-conscious person like me.
But then I heard about a “special” aerobics class at the university where I did my graduate work. Although labeled “Aerobics” in the fitness course listings, the neurobiology professor who told me about it described it as more of a creative dance session. On his advice, I summoned the courage to attend a trial class. I loved it. It was certainly an intense cardio workout. However, instead of repeated grape vines and leg lifts to monotonous, droning club music, we danced, skipped, and twirled our way to an eclectic playlist that included Van Morrison, Latin fusion, and African drumbeats. The class participants weren’t what I would have expected. There wasn’t much Lycra and few young, buff bodies; we were mostly a bunch of scholarly introverts, clad in shorts and souvenir T-shirts from academic conferences. The word had spread that this was a different kind of class. Our fearless leader was playful and patient, and she could get all of us quiet types laughing, yelping and clapping along with her. Plus she had great taste in music. That class was a sanity-saver during the frenzied final months of my PhD work, and the day I turned in my dissertation, our instructor played James Brown’s “Doctor Detroit” in my honor (I really wanted to dance to the “doctor” chorus).
After leaving graduate school I searched for a similar sort of workout with no success. Then last year I tried my first Zumba class. When I heard Zumba described as a blend of Latin, African, and Middle Eastern dance, it sounded similar to my beloved creative dance/aerobics class and I was eager to try it out. I was an immediate convert and now attend a couple of sessions every week with two very different instructors, each excellent in her own way.
My Saturday morning teacher is a classically trained dancer, with experience in many forms of dance. In her classes, the music volume is turned down a little more than is typical, and we focus on choreography. We start with basic steps that become increasingly complex and include everything from cumbia and other Latin steps, to intricate belly dance moves. As we concentrate to move legs, arms, hips, and torsos in an attempt to copy our leader’s movements, we forget that we’re getting a super workout in the process. Eventually the instructor or one of the participants will let out a whoop as the enthusiasm builds, and a few of us occasionally “whoo!” back. Our teacher is a bit of an introvert, though, so while she’s very comfortable with the moves, spontaneous vocal outbursts are not really her style. Nor mine. Nevertheless, I love her class and have a wonderful time trying out all the fancy footwork.
By contrast, my weekday evening Zumba instructor is a wild woman, and it’s a joy just to watch her. She grew up dancing to salsa and merengue, and she’s trained in Capoeira and Samba. Her energy is boundless and contagious. From the second we begin warming up she begins to howl and cheer us on. In her class we yell, make weird siren-calls, yelp, sing, and chant, all while moving our feet impossibly fast to top volume Latin and fusion tunes. With the loud atmosphere, and the hyped up company I don’t worry too much about standing out in the crowd, although it takes me a little while to let go of my inhibitions. We’re amped up, jumping, and twisting. The focus is simply on moving and feeling the groove rather than details of the dance. I feel liberated some nights, but I have to admit that occasionally it’s just too much. I attempt the steps and have a great time, but if I’m not in the mood to shout, the class can seem loud and crazy.
One of my teachers says that her goal is that we’ll feel so comfortable dancing, that we’ll want to go out to a nightclub and dance the night away. Not a chance! But at least these classes have pulled me out of my comfort zone. Although I’d sometimes rather go out for a quiet run by myself in a natural setting, I’ve learned that in the right atmosphere, under the right conditions, whooping and hollering and shakin’ my introverted booty is a great way to get some exercise.