The new full-throttle workout doing the mambo and the merengue across North America is turning exercise into a Latin American party
Denise Galay is a mover and a shaker—literally. A member of the Mortal Coil Performance Society, the Vancouver resident can shimmy and swirl on stilts. She has taught and performed African, Brazilian, and Caribbean dance. But what’s got her busting moves these days is Zumba, the latest fitness craze to sweep North America.
“I describe it as a high-energy Latin-dance fitness class,” says Galay, a group-exercise instructor, in a phone interview following an early-morning Zumba workout at the Britannia community centre, just off Commercial Drive. She stumbled across the form on YouTube a few years ago and signed up for the next teacher-training course in Seattle.
“I was blown away,” she says of her first cha-cha–inspired session. “There were 60 screaming women, and it was so much fun.”
A typical 60-minute Zumba class melds a variety of dance styles, including mambo, cumbia, merengue, tango, and flamenco, sometimes throwing in a few hip-hop, belly-dance, or bhangra moves.
Although rooted in specific footwork, the workout is for people of all fitness levels, and even for those with two left feet.
“It isn’t complicated choreography,” says Galay, who owns Zumba Vancouver, which offers daily classes throughout the Lower Mainland. “We break the moves down so it’s easy for people. A lot of people come up to me at first and say they’re nervous because they can’t dance. They don’t have to. It’s easy to follow, and there’s always a lot of repetition.”¦It can be quite intimidating to go to a dance class; this is very accessible.”
If the steps themselves are simple, the workout isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
Galay explains that the cardio workout takes the form of interval training: high-intensity sections that get participants’ hearts pumping are mixed with lower-intensity segments that give them a chance to catch their breath.
While everyone’s teaching style is different, Galay likes to include one “abs song”, to target the core muscles, and a closing slow number, during which participants stretch while lying or sitting down on the floor.
Miami-based dancer-choreographer and fitness instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez gets credit for the style, which he designed quite by accident in his native Colombia in the mid 1990s. He was about to teach an aerobics class when he realized he had forgotten his music. He pulled out the tunes he listened to in his downtime, the traditional salsa and merengue music he had grown up with, and improvised accompanying moves—to wildly popular effect. The full-throttle form took off with the help of American and Latin American infomercials, and to date Perez’s Zumba Fitness company has sold millions of exercise DVDs in more than 40 countries.
Ongoing interest in Zumba could be linked to the popularity of reality-TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars. Today there are more than 20,000 certified Zumba instructors worldwide.
Besides the standard form, Zumba Fitness has developed courses for older people (Zumba Gold) and kids aged four to 12 (Zumbatomic), as well as water-based classes (Aqua Zumba).
Vancouver’s Barb McEachern, 44, started taking Zumba classes about a year ago after finding herself unmotivated to go to the gym.
“This is fun, it’s delightful, it’s very playful, it’s joyful,” she says in a phone interview. “It helps me get into my body. It’s not hard to go [to a class], because I know I’ll feel great and will be happy and will sweat. My hair is soaking wet after a class.”¦And I love the music. I’ll break out into little dances in my living room.”
McEachern adds that when she first started taking Zumba, she would notice that postworkout ache, particularly in her oblique abdominals—the muscles that run diagonally along either side of the torso. She says the class, which she attends three times a week, has helped strengthen her core, which in turn has made her back feel better.
“It’s shifted exercise from something I have to do to something where everyone is happy and I’m surrounded by smiling people.”
Alesya Bogaevskaya, a Russian-born, Vancouver-based personal trainer, teaches a Zumba class at the YWCA Vancouver’s Health and Fitness Centre downtown every Friday. She discovered the style two years ago while living and working in the United States, where Zumba is even hotter than it is here.
Bogaevskaya says that, given the collective enthusiasm and energy, the fact that the class is such an effective form of exercise is almost an afterthought.
“It’s an intense cardio workout with fun,” Bogaevskaya says in a phone interview. “People are partying, dancing, laughing so much that they don’t realize how hard they’re working. It really is like a party.”