Zumba: Agonizing Good Fun

Mike Little

, Entertainment

Our intrepid reporter tries a 90-minute session of the dance-fitness craze and manages to survive—barely

Let me start by saying that the last thing in the world I wanted to do was Zumba. You’ve heard of Zumba, right? The dance-fitness craze that started in the 1990s and took the world by storm? That’s now being practiced on a weekly basis by some 15 million people?

But I never expected to be among their number for the simple reason that I don’t do dance. Sure, I possess a Bachelor of Arts degree in Square Dancing, earned by attending classes at the municipal building in my hometown of Littlestown, Pa. in 1975. But I was young and in love back then, and like many a besotted swain I was willing to make a complete fool of myself.

Things are different now. I like to think I have acquired a modicum of self-respect. On the other hand, I’ll do anything for a paycheck.

So that’s why, on the day before the day before Christmas, I made my reluctant way to the Delaware City Library for a Zumba “event” hosted by The Z Spot, LLC. Did I have qualms? Yes. Mostly because I had done my research and discovered that Zumba incorporates a potpourri of frenetic dance styles— salsa, mambo, merengue, chachacha, and so on—designed to reduce you to a sweating, heaving wreck. And dancing myself to heart failure is not my idea of a good time.

As I approached the library, I found myself cursing Alberto “Beto” “Power Pedal” Perez, the nefarious Colombian responsible for inventing Zumba. Some may call him a visionary. I say never trust a man with more than one nickname.

About that Name

I could tell you all kinds of fascinating things about Zumba, but suffice it to say the word “Zumba” means nothing and was chosen arbitrarily, and that it has spread from Colombia to 180 countries. It seems you can Zumba almost anywhere except Iran, where the powers that be have declared it un-Islamic, which is perhaps the only advantage to living in Iran.

I spoke with Renee Gelber, who has been running The Z Spot for almost six years. For the 37-year-old Gelber, Zumba has been a game changer. Thanks to the high-octane activity and healthy eating, she has lost almost 100 pounds. But she nearly passed on the initial opportunity to try Zumba because she didn’t want to pay the five bucks her fitness center charged for classes. Fortunately, she was offered a free class, and the rest is history. She became an instructor and started a thriving small business, and now, she told me, The Z Spot hosts three or four events a month across Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. She plans to expand to corporate events, weddings, and the like, and eventually hopes to go global.

Our intrepid writer, mid-Zumba. Photo Sherri Bihl Sobocinski

I also chatted with instructor Travis Algerin, who happens to be Gelber’s boyfriend. Zumba changed the 24-year-old Algerin’s life as well. A serious bodybuilder, he brushed off the recommendations of his mother—a Zumba instructor herself—to give Zumba a try until he suffered a hernia and had to find a new fitness outlet. He took to it immediately, and he says it transformed him from a shy, withdrawn young man who couldn’t look you in the eye to a person who exudes confidence. And thanks to Zumba, both Gelber and Algerin are beginning to see the world. Not long ago, Algerin traveled to Belgium, the United Kingdom and Spain to teach classes.

The event I attended was held in an antiquated gymnasium/auditorium in the building—a former elementary school—that now houses the library. It was the ideal setting for a 1950s sock hop, right down to the basketball hoops and the old stage. The latter—most likely the setting for many a grade-school theatrical—made the perfect platform for Algerin to perform his carefully choreographed routines. (He told me he tries to come up with two new ones per month.)

Rotating disco lights swept the walls, floor and ceiling as the crowd—which had braved a rather savage rain—arrived. They were a radically diverse and very happy lot who seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of tossing themselves about.

I spoke briefly to Joan Burke, a relative newbie and cancer survivor who discovered Zumba through her association with the Livestrong Foundation for people affected by cancer. She was an instant convert, she told me, and praised Zumba for being both high energy and loads of fun. “It doesn’t feel like you’re exercising,” she told me. “It feels like you’re dancing.”

Accolades for the Instructor

And like seemingly everybody else in attendance, Burke had nothing but accolades for Algerin, who seems to have achieved superstar status on the regional Zumba circuit, thanks to his galvanizing on-stage theatrics and an ability to dance like a member of a first-rate boy band.

I went up to him before the performance and said abjectly, “Please don’t kill me.” “No promises,” he replied. “No promises.”

Algerin then took the auditorium’s stage, the music started, and within 15 minutes I was a gasping, sweat-soaked ruin. I fancy myself in good shape for a 59-year-old man; I lift weights and am no stranger to the old elliptical machine. But this was hardcore; you’re constantly dancing, moving your arms, racing to the left and right and backwards and forwards, and leaping up and down. Horrified, I realized that I was expected to do this for 90 minutes. But I seemed to be alone in my misery; everyone else loved it.

While they sought the nearest water fountain, I looked about for a defibrillator, and soon found myself in the bathroom, panting and mopping sweat off my face.

Back in the auditorium, Algerin was constantly pulling people from the crowd to dance with him on stage, and most of them had the skills to pay the bills. My pride injured by his inexplicable failure to choose me—after all, I have the aforementioned Bachelor of Arts in square dancing—I finally decided to bum-rush the stage. That proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Moments into my performance, people actually started pointing at me and laughing. My newfound dream of becoming the next big thing on the Zumba circuit was quickly crushed.

Would I recommend Zumba to you, dear reader? Most certainly. The event’s participants varied in age from 6 to at least 70, and many didn’t look particularly fit. They were there to become fit, and they were having a great time doing it. And you don’t have to go full-tilt boogie the way I tried to do. Many of the dancers adopted their own less frenetic pace, thereby succeeding in burning calories while enjoying themselves.

More than anything, Zumba is good fun. To quote my fiancée, who attended with me: “It’s like doing a line dance at a wedding for an hour-and-a-half.”

The people of Iran don’t know what they’re missing.

For information on upcoming events sponsored by The Z Spot, go to zspotevents.com.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.