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An Ode to Zumba

Oct 11, 2023, 15:08 PM by Juliet Wittman

Zumba instructor poses

When Coreda Ehrhart dances toward the participants in her Saturday Zumba class, hands outstretched, it’s all you can do not to dance toward her and straight into her arms. This woman emanates sheer joy in movement and also a bright energy you can absorb and utilize like a wicked energy vampire. All this even when you’ve reached the tottery age of 81, as I have.

And then there’s Marina Uhlianets from Belarus, in her early 20s, teaching another Zumba class at the same place, her feet flickering fast as fireflies, her body alternately bouncing high as a rubber ball and moving into smooth, supple, graceful dance steps, an Eastern European goddess.

Both women teach classes at the YMCA in Lafayette.

There are folks who sneer at Zumba as the province of pathetic elderly women who can hardly move. One of the worst instances of this occurred in an episode of the sitcom Mom, which I usually mightily enjoy. But I’ve been troubled at the writers’ treatment of the character of Marjorie, a wise older woman played by Mimi Kennedy. Marjorie’s kindness and insight are recurring positive themes, but there are also other descriptors that are ugly and ageist. Marjorie’s apartment is full of cats that smell bad. A mention of her socks suggests that she too might smell less than pleasant. As for sex with her husband Victor, any suggestion that this happily continues at their age causes her four younger friends to wrinkle their noses in disgust. The episode that troubled me most occurred when Marjorie decided to return to Zumba classes. Actor Kennedy is clearly in decent shape herself, but not so Marjorie. We see her in her own apartment wearing a dopey-looking, way-dated hippie headband and making huge, clumsy, out-of-sync, practice moves. The day after her actual return to class she’s creeping up some steps like a spider that’s missing a few legs and trying to climb the slick side of a bathtub.

As for the scriptwriter who came up with the quip about recovering addict Christy explaining how she’d been banned from the single Zumba class she attempted when still high because she suddenly yelled out “Zumba”—that writer should be fired. Clearly he or she had never attended a class. Most teachers would respond with a cheery echo perhaps followed by a friendly yelp.

I’ve been Zumba dancing for a long time. For years I took pride in my comparative strength and fluidity, my ability to keep up with other students half my age. This is no longer the case. I still move happily to the music, but I can no longer jump or twirl. It can take me longer than before to pick up on a new step. None of this is any reason to stop enjoying Zumba. When I had a hip replacement a year ago I followed a virtual online class while sitting on a chair at home, swaying my body and waving my arms. It helped. My surgeon congratulated me after an examination for being way ahead of the recovery curve.

Yes, it was a little humiliating when a fellow dancer kindly suggested I take a slower, easier class, and another offered to show me a step I’d known for years but could no longer accomplish. “I like fast,” I said. And also “I know that step. It’s just that my neuropathic feet can’t do it.”

Before starting their classes, I told both Coreda—aka Cori—and Marina that I might sometimes sit out a number and this was no reason for concern. Not a problem, they both said. Zumba is for everyone.

And so it is. I look around the weekend classes and see women of several ages and fitness levels—along with an occasional male or two—happily dancing. Some are clearly trained dancers gliding through routines, some are muscled, high leaping athletes, some are simply folks who want to stay in shape or get into shape.

Zumba will do that for you. It requires stamina to stay on your feet and move without ceasing for a solid hour, and over time your stamina increases, along with cardiovascular fitness and strengthened muscles. Proprioception and speed improve as you learn swift changes of position and direction. Balance gets better, which means if you falter later at home, you’re more likely to catch yourself in time. Some studies indicate that Zumba also improves thinking and brain function.

Zumba class at the Lafayette YMCA

That’s just the practical, physical stuff. But most people attend classes again and again for the sheer pleasure of moving to music along with the additional pleasure of looking around and seeing that everyone in the room is dancing with you. At the end of my last class a woman I’d never spoken with before came up to me smiling broadly. “This keeps me sane,” she said.

If you haven’t attended Zumba classes before, here are five tips:

1. Yes. You can injure yourself if you go all out immediately. There are Zumba Gold classes intended for older people, and perhaps they are worth checking out. Or you can simply go to a regular class and follow as best you can without trying moves that feel too challenging until you’re familiar with them.

2. This is a party, not a ballet class. Your teacher will not stop to demonstrate the steps. They will just start moving and continue until the session is over. It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch all the moves the first time you see them. Or even the second, third or fourth.

It’s a good idea, I think, to detach your brain, simply watch the instructor dancing, and tell your body to follow. Pretty soon it will.

3. If you’re human, you’ll look around nervously to see if you’re clumsier than the other participants or proudly because you know you’re good. Forget comparisons. I have been in classes with the kind of instructor who plays favorites, asks dancers she likes to move to the front while ignoring others, and doles out praise or criticism. Chances are she was once a ballet dancer with a rigorous Russian instructor. If you find yourself in her class, get out.

4. If you’re starting out and the room is reasonably full, it’s best to stand toward the back. No one wants to be crowded in behind you when you’re having trouble following and they can’t see the teacher through the throng. Conversely, if you’re the one who can’t see the teacher get behind a dancer who knows her stuff and follow her.

The fact is, no one is judging you.  

5. Bring a water bottle and don’t hesitate to stop for a drink or to wipe your forehead.
"Don't be shy, just try it!" says Cori. “It doesn't matter if you are ‘good at it’ or not, what matters is that you are moving, enjoying the music and having fun. You'll hear some great music, meet some really nice people and you'll get an amazing workout.”

Juliet Wittman is a journalist, critic, memoirist, writing teacher, novelist and YMCA member. You can read more of her writing here or visit her website to learn more about her new book, Again & Again. 

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