Zumba: Fit Test DrivePosted on Oct 20th 2009 12:00PM by Sara Reistad-Long
Zumba: The word definitely sounds more like a festive tropical energy drink than a workout and I'll admit, until recently I'd never heard of it either. But if trend tracking is to be believed, this Latin-themed aerobic dance workout -- sometimes called zumba dance -- may be on the way to your gym even as we speak. As of July 2009, classes were being offered at over 40,000 gyms in 75 countries. And spinoff genres--among them Country Line Dancing Zumba, Aqua Zumba, an even Zumba Gold for seniors are gaining ground.
The Zumba story's a pretty winning one: Back in the 1990s, Alberto Perez, a young aerobics instructor teaching in Cali, Columbia, arrived at his class only to realize he'd forgotten all his tapes. Luckily, he had plenty of salsa and merengue tracks in his car -- he grabbed them, and proceeded to improvise the whole class to those beats. People loved it and there was, he says, just no going back. In 1999, he paired with some enthusiastic backers and brought the concept stateside, where it became something of an American Dream fitness story. Zumba's landed everything from book deals and videos to a partnership with Kellogg's (it's been featured on the back of their cereal boxes as part of a fitness campaign for the Hispanic market).
The draw is arguably two-fold. First, dance workouts have been exploding these past few years, thanks to the success of shows like "Dancing with the Stars." In fact, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, the number of dance classes now being offered has almost doubled since 2002. Second, Zumba (which, by the way, alludes to "buzzing like a bee" in Spanish) really draws on its carefree Latin image -- you're supposed to get in there, shake your hips, sweat and not care if you're getting the moves right.
I kept this in mind as I walked into my first Zumba class, a Saturday afternoon affair at one of Equinox's ritzier outposts in Manhattan's West Village (I'd been told that the Zumba teachers working for Equinox were among the best). I've written before (and will no doubt write again!) about my absurd lack of coordination (aerobics classes and I do not always fare well together), so my strategy was to compensate for what I lacked in skill with healthy enthusiasm. I was going to have fun if it killed me.
If there was a Zumba central casting office, they couldn't have done better than Sam, our (authentically Latin) instructor. He was petite, graceful and incredibly excited that two of his female friends were in the class. He was so upbeat I found myself secretly wanting to befriend him. Things got off to a good start. Sam stressed that this was supposed to be a good time and a good workout, and that, if we couldn't do a step, it was fine to just keep moving along to the music. To my amazement, though, I actually could handle much of what we started out with. As could, seemingly, most of the class (we were almost all women, probably skewing a little more heavily in the 30-and-above realm).
Every time we started something new, Sam would have his back to us and point as his feet. We'd start simple and gradually add more elements, sometimes -- magically -- bringing in earlier moves, too, so there was a real sense of getting better and better. Then, in the middle there, I found myself hitting my own personal Zumba wall. Some of the moves got too complicated for me, and I found myself frantically scrambling to keep up, studying Sam's feet as if my life depended on it. Clearly, I was taking this way too seriously.
Being in a class actually helped here -- once I had the presence of mind to snap myself into reality, something that actually involved an internal monologue about, well, having fun, kicked in. I think the appeal of Zumba is really its total hodge-podge. There were definitely a few standout dancers in the room, and they seemed to have plenty to challenge them, but for the most part, the group seemed heavy on the "all shapes and sizes" mantra.
The one thing I noticed, the people who looked to be having the best workout, both in terms of being able to keep themselves moving all sorts of body parts and having a good time, were those who weren't trying so hard to do everything right. From that perspective, I feel like the workout came with its own unexpected mental health lesson. And as I gave in and just started to bop away, I realized it was a very welcome two-for-one.
Pluses: Because it's so low-pressure, Zumba's perfect for just about any fitness (or coordination) level. And while participants are encouraged to only do what they're comfortable with, for those who want a challenge, there's plenty of appeal here: The music is motivating, and the actual moves work on a broad range of muscles, including heavy emphasis on core groups.
Minusus: To get the most out of this, I think you have to buy into some silliness, from embracing the concept to accepting that you may well spend some time looking lost.
Takeaway: If you're up for it, Zumba's a pretty good workout, well suited for pretty much any skill level. At no point did I feel like I was going full throttle, yet I was actually surprised at how many of my muscles were really feeling it the next day.
Learn more: Zumba (official site), see it on YouTube, and read an interview with Beto Perez Maggie Greenwood-Robinson, co-authors of "ZUMBA: Ditch the Workout, Join the Party! The Zumba Weight Loss Program."
Excited about dance-centric classes? Here's more about why aerobic workouts are making a comeback (yes, even the '80s-style ones).