Down to the River

teen-zumba

By Ed Staskus 

   “Rhythm is something you either have or don’t have, but when you have it, you have it all over.”  Elvis Presley.

   On a Saturday morning in mid-fall, Olga Capas, Rita Zvirblis, and Vanessa Staskus ordered late breakfast early lunch at the Diner on Clifton, finding a table on the outdoor patio and easing into their seats twenty minutes after their ever 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 with tuning in to the sunny-side up movement exercise scene.

   “We got to class early and found our space in the back,” said Vanessa, “but then every minute somebody went behind us, so in no time we went from being in the back row to being in the front row.”

   If you’re in the front row you’re leading the parade. It wasn’t what they planned, but once the class started, they had to look alive. If you stop, you’re going to melt back into the tuba section, where you might get laid low.

   “I thought they were going to kick me out,” said Rita, “I have no rhythm, but it’s so fast, you can’t think about anything else besides keeping your feet moving.”

   She was being modest. She danced with the Grandinele folk dancers as a teenager and young adult. She traveled with the troupe to Chicago and Toronto, Europe, and South America. Folk dancing reflects the life of people from a place or country. It can be the upbeat southern Italian Tarantella, the rhythmic Turkish Haly, the Polish carnival party dance Polonaise, Kentucky clogging, and Korean sword dancing. Zumba is along the lines of a street dance.

   Grandinele was formed in Cleveland in the early 1950s by Liudas Sagys, who began his career as a professional dancer with the National Folk Dance Ensemble in Lithuania. He taught the steps and choreographed Grandinele’s country hoedowns while his wife Alexandra made the costumes and kept the books. He was the longtime director of the Cleveland Folk Dance Festival which in 1976 was recognized as “the best ever.”

   “I loved the Zumba, the music and moving,” said Olga. She always had tennis shoes at the ready in her hallway when she was ready to move.

   The three women are all of Lithuanian descent, one of them from the homeland, two of them immigrant stock, living west of the Cuyahoga River, on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, active and fit enough. Plump pale and healthy as an ox without batting an eyelash was the touchstone once upon a time, but the signs of the times have long since changed. Never fit and trim enough is where walking jogging running working out and Zumba come in.

   Zumba is a dance and 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 the turn of the century, it 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 one of the largest fitness brands in the world, practiced everywhere from big-box gyms to church halls to community centers.

   At the Harrison Elementary School, sponsored by the Lakewood Recreation Department, classes are taught by Amy Annico, a hale hearty black-haired young woman sporting a quick smile, bright blue sneakers, and hauling a yellow Dewalt boom box about the size of an air compressor from her car to the class.

   “One minute she was monkeying with that big yellow thing,” said Rita, “and then at nine o’clock in the morning exactly it was blasting.”

   It was the blast off.

   “I’m not really for nightclubbing first thing in the morning,” Rita said, “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, more often than not for the boogie and socializing, even though the results can be transforming.  It is a cardiovascular calorie-burning hour of twisting and turning in varying states of synchronization to loud bouncy 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 essentially an aerobic fitness program, including basic core fitness, married to dance routines. Set to full of life Latin American beats, it burns up to 600 calories an hour, according to Harvard Health Publications. Sweating is not optional, since everybody starts sweating within a couple of minutes and doesn’t stop until the end of class.

   “Zumba is hard,” said Olga, “but it’s not hard like going to the gym. Sometimes 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 watching Amy’s feet up on the stage,” said Rita between bites on a Reuben sandwich. “It’s those blue shoes she wears the whole time, trying to follow what she’s doing, and then you immediately start sweating.”

   “Immediately!” echoed Vanessa. “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 attends the annual Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida, every year, 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 aqua fitness themes. A great deal of jumping and splashing is involved. Strapless bathing suits are strongly discouraged, for good reason.

   “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 encouraged subscribed to and applauded. You may not get a gold star, but you’ll be a shooting star.

   “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 “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 all your endorphins out endorphins as well as working out your muscles.

   Some people 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 heard you get really thirsty at Zumba,” said Rita.

   “My whole bottle of water was gone before half the class was over, and I never drink water,” said Vanessa. “Everybody was going back and forth to the water fountain getting more of it all class long. You don’t get totally winded, even though it’s non-stop dancing, but you do get totally thirsty.”

   Their dishes cleared off the table at the diner, coffee cups re-filled, and lingering over their lunchtime, 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 Rita. “Amy is so animated, she makes all these noises, those sounds of hers, like she is definitely having fun doing it, and she makes it the same for everybody.”

   “It’s loke dancing from beginning to end, but it’s exercise, too. You do it with joy, and afterwards you feel so good,” added Olga. “It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.”

   They all agreed Zumba was 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 Rita while walking back to their car. “It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.”

   Some words are triggers. Cake is one of them. If staying healthy and fit is a priority, since vegetables are a good way of getting there, there is always pumpkin pie and carrot cake.

   “Why don’t we drive down to Tremont, have some dessert, and go for a walk along the river?” Vanessa suggested. “It’s going to start getting cold soon.” The winter in Cleveland was only six weeks away, when the sky would go dark gray and storms started blowing in over Lake Erie.

   That’s what the three Baltic hoofers doing Columbian slimnastics for the day did, before the sun set, and the night’s new frost crept in unnoticed.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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