Health & Fitness

We Tried It: Zumba

Written by Sally Charette

When I joined the gym, I’d been walking and using DVDs for exercise, but needed something more. At first I didn’t even consider taking the classes because I never enjoyed phys ed in school. For months I trudged past Zumba and other classes on my way to a grim and increasingly boring circuit of machines. I saw some results, but it always felt like a chore. I resented the time it took away from other things I wanted to do. Overcoming my resistance to group exercise wasn’t quick, but it changed the way I feel about going to the gym.

From the outside, a Zumba class can look intimidating. Sure, the mix of Latin and hip-hop music is hot, but everyone seems to know exactly what they’re doing. What I found inside wasn’t just another form of exercise, but an invitation to throw off my inhibitions, allow myself to have fun and accept my mistakes.

Jumping in
It’s one thing to work your moves on a dark, crowded dance floor after a couple of glasses of wine, and quite another to shake your shoulders and pop your hips in a brightly lit room in the middle of the day. I took a place in the back row for my first Zumba class. It seemed like a safe position from which I could watch what everyone else was doing while I got my bearings.

This strategy worked out just fine until the whole class turned around and I found myself in the front row, looking over my shoulder, moving left when everyone else was moving right. I was mortified, but the woman I almost ran into just grinned at me and stepped out of my way.

After one session, I was hooked. I’d exercised with aerobics DVDs in the past so I was familiar with some of the basic steps, but the sexy hip and shoulder movements of Zumba were new to me. It was a tough workout, but women of all ages and sizes were doing it and best of all, the hour had passed without my ever checking the clock.

Never boring
As I returned to class week after week, I learned not to compare myself with the Zumba goddesses in the front row. On one hand, they weren’t perfect either, sometimes biffing a step or two. On the other, what made them so much fun to watch was that they were clearly having a blast and not worrying about being perfect.

The main thing is to keep moving. Good instructors repeat some songs from class to class, but also mix new ones in and have enough of a repertoire that things never become routine. If a sequence wasn’t instantly clear to me, I just stepped in the general direction everyone else was moving until I either got it or we moved on. The more comfortable I got, the more I realized that the really fun songs were the ones that weren’t super simple. It felt good to return to a song that included a challenging sequence. Sometimes just when I thought I’d never get it, I stopped overthinking it and amazingly found my feet moving in the right pattern.

Even when you have all the basic moves, there’s always something to work on. You feel it when you kick a little higher, add a little more pop or twist in your hips or ripple your abs like a belly dancer. You may start out doing a lower impact version of the steps everyone else is doing and work up to feeling like you’re flying six inches above the floor. You know you’re making progress when you end the hour wanting one more song or one more half hour.

My favorite instructor, Jeannie, often yells over the music, “Smile! It burns more calories.” Zumba is a fun, exhilarating workout and it’s okay to feel it. In fact, if you can overcome your inhibitions and keep a smile on your face, you’ll be more likely to laugh when you mess up–which will happen. I’ve been taking Zumba for more than a year now, and I still make mistakes right along with the best of them. Now I’m the one encouraging the newbie to relax and have fun.

It doesn’t take a lot to get started with Zumba, just a good pair of athletic shoes and clothes that allow you to move freely. A bottle of water, a towel and a headband or other way to keep your hair out of your face will also come in handy. Some of the instructors at the gym I go to encourage class members to wear belly dancer-style scarves with faux coins sewn onto them, which makes for a nice sound during class and also helps you learn to put more juice into your moves. When those coins start flying, you know your hips are really moving.

While you don’t have to go buy new shoes to get started in Zumba, if you have a choice in your closet or find yourself so enchanted that you want to invest in shoes that will specifically help you get your groove going, there are some things to look for.

Perhaps the most important thing is to choose a shoe that grips a hardwood gym floor enough but not too much. Too much grip opens up the possibility of a twisted knee or ankle if the foot stays in one place during pivots. When trying on shoes, make sure they’re fairly light and flexible. The part of the shoe that cups your heel at the back is called the cup. Press the ball of your foot into the floor as if you’re standing on tip toe to make sure that the cup is either low enough or has a notch in it to allow your Achilles tendon–the one at the back of your heel–to fully contract.

I use a pair of lightweight Nikes that still provide ample cushioning beneath my heel. You can find shoes specifically designed for this fast-paced style of dance exercise on the official Zumba website. Split-soled shoes like the Dansneaker line by Capezio offer lots of flexibility for arching and flexing the foot.

Where to find it
Most major membership gyms and many smaller fitness studios offer classes these days, but you can search for opportunities near your home by plugging your hometown into the Zumba instructor finder tool online.

About the author

Sally Charette

Sally Charette often scribbles away the predawn hours in coffee houses and all-night diners, which simultaneously satisfies her love of hot beverages, writing and eavesdropping.

Originally from Indiana, Sally is now fully integrated into California life. She works as a script researcher, helping CSI:Miami, Army Wives, Switched at Birth and the occasional feature film stay out of trouble. She regularly travels Southern California and beyond in her pursuit of photography subjects, good food, music and art.

Her blog, Any Given Sundry, reflects her many interests and maybe reveals a little too much about her constant search for novelty. She was a PEN Center/West Emerging Voices fellow and has been in writing workshops, groups or critiquing relationships most of her adult life. The best she's ever felt about being runner-up was the year her first published short story was named "One of 100 Other Distinguished Short Stories" in Best American Short Stories.

Sally lives in the high desert mountains outside of Los Angeles with her husband and a small, deeply devoted flock of birds.