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01.27.10

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Phaedra

THE ZUMBA MAJORITY: Yes, women outnumber men in Zumba classes. No, that's not a bad thing.

Dancing King

Zumba has a way of winning a man over

By Michael Houghton


I WAS in a serious rut, bored on an existential level with my exercise routine. I'd been biking the same route, lifting the same weights and sun-salutating through the same beginner yoga, all out of crushing, stagnant habit. And no matter how distracting the TV was, being stuck on a treadmill was feeling like, well, like being stuck on a treadmill. I was flogging myself for past transgressions. I desperately needed a change.

Years ago, I'd read a quote from the Dalai Lama that said one of the secrets to happiness is to do something you've never done at least once a month. Or was it once a week? Honestly, all I've ever been able to achieve is "once in a while," but it's an idea that I've come back to every time the doldrums strike. And I've found that this something is best if it's at least a little out of character.

The thing I was most looking for was fun with a capital "F." I kept thinking of that line in Fight Club about the fighters starting to "see everything differently"—that "Fight Club gets to be your reason for going to the gym and keeping your hair cut short and cutting your nails." I wanted something like that, but without all the face-punching.

I picked Zumba.

Zumba is one of the latest crazes in fitness: a combination of aerobics with Latin dance, hip-hop and whatever other high-energy, hip-wiggling dance styles the instructor decides to include in her choreography. As best I can tell, the choice of music (always fast and often techno- and rap-inflected Latin rock) and choreography varies from instructor to instructor. Some make it girlier than others, but all make it girly. Because, if nothing else, Zumba is almost entirely by and for women.

On my first day, I rolled up to the throng of women milling outside the doors waiting for class to begin. They were immediately surprised, even thrilled, to learn that a man was going to be joining them. I explained that I'd done some Afro-Cuban dance a few years ago and knew the basic samba step, so I wasn't going in totally cold. They assured me that, though it was confusing at first because there's not much how-to instruction, I shouldn't worry. Everyone is confused initially.

For the first few songs the steps were reasonably easy to follow. Sure, I felt a little silly prancing and hip-bomping, and even sillier with all the punctuating cries of "Come on, ladies!" and the high-pitched cries of "Whoooo!" But fortunately, female friends had told me that just being brave enough to show up gets you lots of extra credit with the ladies.

But then the "routines" songs started, and I was completely lost. Every couple of steps something new was happening, and I was always behind, off balance, spinning spastically, my brain buzzing with confusion. Every time I started to vaguely understand the choreography, the song was over. Invariably, the next song was even more confusing.

Somewhere in there, though, I was still having fun. And when it was over, I was sweating like a squeezed sponge and pleasantly exhausted. How did that happen?

Before I left, one of my classmates exclaimed, "You did awesome!" She said I'd done way better than she had in her first class, which felt good. "Don't worry about getting all the steps," she encouraged me. "Who cares, as long as you're moving and having fun? You'll get the steps eventually—just keep coming back!"

Reader, I did. I went back later that week and have been going twice a week for the last few months. And I did pick the steps up—slowly. I still got confused, but I stopped worrying about it and just smiled.

I also noticed changes in my body almost immediately. The too-tight-around-my-belly jacket of a week before was now loose. My initially sore knees and ankles started feeling strong and lubricated, no longer crackling all the time, in ways that years of biking and yoga had never fixed. I found myself randomly jumping and skipping (at age 37) just because I could. My old belt has come in two notches. And I feel like I'm really living in my body and enjoying its flow of movement in a way that all these years of being a smart guy failed to give me.

So now I am seeing things a little differently. I feel more confident. I'm downright evangelical about my newly reclaimed health. A few classmates call me the "Zumba King" (to which I reply: "There's not much competition"). I'm even thinking of buying dance sneakers. Sure, I still occasionally feel like a Brazilian tranny on a Carnivale float, but I'm OK with that. Those trannies are having a blast.

And now I'm the one telling the newbies at the end of class: "Who cares if you got all the steps perfect? All that matters is that you're moving and that you're having fun."


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