If you’re a channel surfer, you’ve probably run across an infomercial for Zumba, a trendy Latin dance fitness program. It’s cresting in popularity now, with live group classes available across the globe, DVDs for home use, and even video game versions of the workout.
But even though I personally teach this fitness class a couple times a week — and there are loads of other classes throughout the state — I have a love-hate relationship with it. Actually, it’s as if Zumba is my wild, fun-loving friend, the same friend who would ditch me in a second if trouble arose or something better came along.
Let’s be clear: Zumba classes can be an absolute blast. That’s why they are so popular. The class is also nonintimidating because there’s no right or wrong way to do the moves, or even to teach the class, really, but I’ll get to that later. The focus is simple movements done to great music. And you don’t have to be a good dancer to take the class or, thankfully for me, even to teach it. I’m a fitness person all the way, not a dancer — in fact, I never imagined salsa dancing on a stage with 40-plus people looking at me, especially without having a little liquid fortification beforehand. And let’s not even talk about teaching the belly dancing moves.
Anyway, over the course of the Zumba class, you work up a great sweat and rack up 5,000 or more pedometer steps. I burn around 500 calories in an hour while teaching Zumba. That’s a lot of calories for someone my size, and my classes tend to be pretty high-energy although we do modifications for every fitness level. Despite that, you don’t feel like you’re doing an actual workout. I especially love it because people who normally hate exercising come to class and smile for an hour while improving their cardiovascular fitness. It’s fun to watch them having fun.
In fact, I call Zumba my gym’s “gateway drug.” The class opens the door to fitness for people who normally would never enter and gets them comfortable with moving their bodies. Eventually, some of them try other forms of exercise. Some of them don’t, and that’s OK, too, as long as they keep shimmying to Zumba. But it’s nice to see people learning to love movement and to trust their bodies.
The concern I have about Zumba comes from my more serious fitness background. Zumba is a trademarked program. Its instructor training program consists of a daylong workshop, which I took with 49 other people, only two of whom had any sort of fitness background. During the lunch break, I checked my email and had already received a congratulatory message about completing the training, even though the workshop lasted another four hours.
There was no real instruction about teaching methods, safe movement patterns, or even putting together a class that safely takes heart rates up and down. The manual, to be fair, does cover the very basics, and Zumba creators suggest getting a basic group exercise instructor certification, although that isn’t required. And this is all fine, really, except that Zumba tends to cater to a group of people who might have health issues and would benefit from a more thoughtful approach to class design. I’m not talking about taking the fun level down — just taking the safety level up.
Because of the way the workshops are run, no two Zumba classes or instructors are the same. If you try the class — and I suggest you try different groups until you find one that’s the right fit for you — it’s a good idea to introduce yourself to the instructor and let her or him know you’re new and if you have any physical or medical concerns they should be aware of.
Meanwhile, I wish Zumba’s creators would give my wild and fun friend a retooling so she’s a little more reliable — and safe — for all participants and here with us for years to come.
Wendy Watkins is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at the Bangor-Brewer Athletic Club in Brewer.