On a recent Saturday morning, Olga Capas, Rita Zvirblis, and Vanessa Staskus ordered late breakfasts and early lunches at the Diner on Clifton after finding a table in the shade on the patio and easing into their seats after their first Zumba class. Over cups of steaming coffee, three-cheese omelets, patty melts, and shared sweet potato fries they caught up with their breath and the Zumba experience.
“We got there early and found our space in the back,” said Vanessa Staskus, “but then everybody went behind us, so we became the front row.”
“I thought they were going to kick me out,” said Rita Zvirblis, “ because I have no rhythm, but it’s so fast, you can’t think about anything.”
A dance-fitness program created by exercise instructor and choreographer Alberto “Beto” Perez in Colombia during the 1990s when he improvised salsa music into an aerobics class, since 1999 Zumba has expanded to 125 countries, taught by more than 20,000 certified instructors. Practiced weekly by approximately 14 million people worldwide it is today’s most popular dance-fitness phenomenon.
In 2012 Zumba was named the ‘Company of the Year’ by Inc. Magazine and is today the largest fitness brand in the world, practiced everywhere from big-box gyms to church halls and community centers.
At the Harrison Elementary School, sponsored by the Lakewood Recreation Department, classes are taught by Amy Annico, a trim, black-haired young woman sporting a quick smile, very bright blue sneakers, and carrying a yellow Dewalt boom box the size of an air compressor.
“One minute she was monkeying with that yellow thing,” said Mrs. Zvirblis, “and then at nine o’clock exactly that yellow thing was blasting.”
“I’m not really for nightclubbing at nine in the morning,” said Mrs. Staskus, “but she makes it a lot of fun. It’s like partying yourself into shape.”
Zumba is different than many other fitness programs because people don’t always take it for the fitness benefits, although the results can be transforming. It is a cardiovascular calorie-burning hour of twisting and turning in varying states of synchronization to loud, infectious music.
“They are taking it for the happiness and joy that they feel while they are doing it, and the fitness is just the result of this,” said Alberto Perlman, who with Alberto Perez was a co-founder of the Zumba enterprise.
Zumba is a fitness program, including core fitness, married to dance routines. Set to bouncy Latin American beats, it burns between 360 – 530 calories an hour, according to Harvard Health Publications. Sweating is not optional, since everyone starts sweating within minutes and doesn’t stop until the end of class.
“Zumba is hard,” said Olga Capas, “but it’s not like going to the gym. I have to force myself to do that, but with Zumba the music is going and you just want to move.”
“It’s fast-paced and you’re just watching her feet up on the stage,” said Rita Zvirblis between bites on a Reuben sandwich. “It’s those blue shoes the whole time, trying to follow what she’s doing, and then you immediately start sweating.”
“Immediately!” echoed Vanessa Staskus. “Sweat was dripping down the small of my back before the warm-up was even over.”
Amy Annico, a music teacher as well as part-time actress, has taught Zumba since 2008 at area YMCA’s, Live Well Lakewood, health fairs, and retirement homes. She regularly attends the annual Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida, upgrading her skills
“I’m trained in Zumba, which is for everyone,” she said, “and Zumba Gold, which is for older, active adults, and Zumbatomic for kids.”
There is even Aqua Zumba, a water-based workout integrating Zumba with traditional aqua fitness disciplines. A great deal of jumping and splashing is involved. Strapless bathing suits are strongly discouraged.
“The Harrison school class is a great community class,” Amy said. “Everyone’s dancing, it’s like a party, people are hooting and hollering and shaking, and the hour flies by and you don’t even know it.”
By all accounts shimmying, shaking and sliding, hooting and hollering, as well as chest pumping and bootie shaking, are generally subscribed to and applauded.
“I always say, don’t be shy, give it a try,” said Amy Annico. “It’s all about spreading the joy of music from around the world with fantastic fitness and dance moves.”
The word Zumba is Colombian slang and means ‘to move fast and have fun.’ It has been described as exercise in disguise. Set to four basic rhythms based on salsa, merengue, cumbia, and reggaeton, it is a non-stop workout that works out endorphins as well as muscles.
Some lose inches off their waistlines, others see their cholesterol drop and their energy levels rise, while still others simply reduce their stress levels. Some men even learn to dance and not make fools of themselves at weddings anymore.
Just as sweating is mandatory, so is staying hydrated.
“I told Vanessa to bring water, even though she doesn’t like water, because I had heard you get really thirsty at Zumba,” said Mrs. Zvirblis.
“My bottle of water was gone before half the class was over, and I never drink water, “ said Mrs. Staskus. “Everybody was going back and forth to the bench getting more all class long. You don’t get winded, even though it’s non-stop dancing, but you do get thirsty.”
Their dishes cleared, coffee cups re-filled, and lingering over dessert, the three women agreed that Zumba was the best way they could think of to exercise without actually exercising.
“The salsa moves are really good for you, your whole body is going, your hips are going,” said Mrs. Zvirblis. “Amy is so animated, she makes all these noises, like she is definitely having fun doing it, and she makes it the same for everybody.”
“It’s just dancing from beginning to end, but it’s exercise, too. You do it with joy, and afterwards you feel so good,” added Mrs. Capas. “It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.”
They all agreed Zumba is the best of both worlds. There are shortcuts to happiness and dancing is one of them.
“Your whole body is moving and you don’t have time to think about working out,” said Mrs. Staskus while walking back to their car. “It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.”
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.