First off, I don't dance. If you ever found me in a club, I'd be the wallflower in the corner, immobile except for maybe an occasional head bob. So when my boss suggested I profile Zumba (pronounced ZOOM-bah), a Latin-inspired dance fitness class, I wasn't exactly eager to bust a move. If it required wearing anything close to a leotard or a tutu, you could count me out.
Before I attended the first class, I turned to the Internet to see exactly what I was getting into. According to Zumba.com, this aerobic class, created by Colombian dance instructor Beto Perez, "fuses hypnotic Latin rhythms and easy-to-follow moves to create a one-of-a-kind fitness program that will blow you away." (Warning: Turn your speakers down before you click; the Latin rhythms start right away, and pulsing loud beats fill the room.) I decided to stay positive and determined "blow you away" meant that Zumba was going to make me lighter than a feather. Good-bye extra pounds, hello dance legs!
Finding a class was easy; Zumba is offered at gyms nationwide. (In fact, some gyms offer different types of Zumba: Zumba Gold is a class geared toward older individuals or those who want to move at a slower pace; Zumba Toning incorporates lightweight dumb-bells into the routines to focus more on muscle conditioning; and Aqua Zumba is a water-based workout that integrates traditional Zumba moves in the pool.)
At my gym, the basic Zumba classes were held in a typical group workout room—i.e., one with mirrors, mirrors on almost every wall. Not only would everyone be able to see me, but worse, I would be able to watch myself. Yuck. I decided to position myself in the back of the class.
Before we started, the instructor checked to see if anyone was new, and a few of us raised our hands. Her advice: Relax and have fun. There is no dance experience required, so don't get caught up trying to master every step—just keep moving to the beat of the music. With that, she cued up the festive music on the sound system, and away we went, er, danced.
As I tried to get into a groove, I evaluated my fellow dancers. The class was full to overflowing and had attracted a mix of all types of people and fitness levels. Some were much older than I'd seen in other group classes; some high school and college age; some over-weight; and some in shape and clearly comfortable dancing. Zumba seemed like a class for anyone. But everybody did have one thing in common: We all looked ridiculous. Luckily, no one was watching or even cared, but, well, me. I'm not going to lie: I felt out of place. My classmates were smiling and seemed to be having fun, though. And I noticed that even the super-perky girl in the middle row, clearly a class regular, wasn't a pro at all the moves. What I would get from this class was up to me. I could be shy and too embarrassed to try, or I could jump in, let loose, and catch the beat. So I jumped.
Here's what's different about Zumba: It's more dance party than structured exercise class. In Zumba, you learn by watching. The instructor does not stand at the front of the class barking orders. He or she provides minimal coaching on the choreography for each song, which is typically only three or four steps, repeated over and over. But no one expects you to instantaneously pick up the moves; as long as you're moving, you're doing fine. Luckily, the steps are pretty basic, and you should easily be able to follow along before the song ends.
The music moved from reggae to salsa, to merengue, to something I can only describe as Egyptian for which I tried to channel my inner Cleopatra. I loosened up a little and started to get into the swing of things. Some moves came easily, like the grapevine. (You remember: It's the crossover leg move featured in almost every '80s workout video. I kept waiting for Jane Fonda to walk in and take over.) Other moves took a little longer for me to follow—like when the whole class suddenly shimmied to the left and I found myself dancing alone on the right side of the room. But no biggie; I brushed it off and danced on.
About a third of the way through the one-hour session, I began to feel the muscles I was working. My calves started to burn. Dancers obviously spend a lot of time jumping around on the balls of their feet. (And those ladies on Dancing with the Stars sure have the gams to prove it.) I could also feel my deltoids, the muscle forming the rounded top of the upper arms and shoulders, burning, too. Zumba engages your arms throughout the entire workout—no weights required. If your arms aren't high above your head, they are constantly pumping and gyrating to the music.
By the end of class, I was surprised I had made it through. In the midst of my uneasiness, I had worked up a sweat—even been breathless at the end of a few songs. I kept attending classes throughout the month because I was so inspired by the way Zumba gets a variety of people moving and energized. This workout is perfect for beginners. It requires you to utilize every muscle and move your whole body in different directions, unlike walking, running, or cycling (which are repetitive movements).
Once you forget to be self-conscious and start having fun, you barely realize you're actually working out. You can expect results, too: Not only did Zumba engage my calf muscles and arms, but it also targeted my waistline with all the twisting and turning. What surprised me most was the soreness right beneath my glutes. It felt like I'd had a butt-lift—no lunges required. (I sure hope it looks that way from behind.)