What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I decided that Zumba, that dance-workout thing everyone and their sister-in-law is talking about, was cheesy and that I wouldn’t be caught dead doing it. I’d sooner don neon green tights and an off-the-shoulder fuchsia sweatshirt and perform Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons in a public square.
To me, it reeked of Jazzercise, legwarmers, and middle age. (Also, I am inexplicably yet fundamentally against any exercise with a trademark.)
But I was mid-move and without a gym, and I needed to find non-gym ways to exercise. I’d been going to my favorite yoga studio to get my downward dog on, but I had nothing in the way of cardio and it was starting to show. A friend suggested an outdoor bootcamp, but the idea of someone getting in my face and yelling at me at 5 AM on a misty cold morning in Santa Monica (essentially, reenacting Goldie Hawn’s big scene in "Private Benjamin") was not my idea of a great time.
That’s when I heard it: the cry of the Zumba. It said to me, in a zesty, ambiguously Latin voice, “Are you ready to paaarty yourself into shape?” And I said, "Yes. Yes, I am."
I quickly Yelped for a class near me: take your pick, there were countless. They were all in random locations -- hole-in-the-wall gyms, Pilates and yoga studios, martial arts centers, YMCAs, you name it. I chose one based on their offer: “Zumba with Eartha -- 30 days FREE!” Four- and five-star reviews all around. How could I go wrong?
I threw on some spandex and a T-shirt and drove myself to the “Zumba studio” –- a musty boxing and martial arts space that inspired neither confidence nor a party. A few punching bags lined the room. I half expected to see Clint Eastwood in the back, holding a cold, raw steak to Hilary Swank’s bruised face.
Everyone else had brought water bottles and towels. I felt like the new kid. I even tried to make small talk with the lady in front of me, but she wasn’t having it. Where was that warm fuzzy community feeling I’d heard Zumba inspires?
The instructor appeared, an animated, frayed-hair bundle of woman in bright cotton. She was histrionically “thrilled!” to have us there. The music began. I followed along. It was fine. I built up a mild, clammy sweat. It was over and I left.
Really? I thought, getting back in my car. This was the craze sweeping the nation? This was the thing 14 million people the world over were gaga over?
Then, I went to a good Zumba class.
The good Zumba class was led by Raul. I quickly learned, in the world of Zumba, it’s all about the instructor. Raul, with his taut, compact frame, his brilliant smile, cheerful demeanor and adorably festive shouts of “Now we samba!” was in a different league altogether.
In Raul’s class, I was transported to Argentina and Brazil. I tangoed away the tapas from Friday night and belly-danced my bloated muffin top off. Even my saddlebags got the salsa treatment.
It didn’t matter that I was salsa-ing left when everyone else was cha cha-ing right. Or, that the probability of this nice girl from Ohio being able to pop-and-lock is 0.000 percent. It didn’t matter just how much of an idiot I looked like doing it, because I was surrounded by 30 other women all looking equally dumb. Which meant none of us really looked dumb, because everyone was too busy having a good time to care.
See, something happens in a Zumba class. After a few minutes warming up to “exotic dance beats” and genuine encouragement to let your freak flag fly, you reach this turning point where you don’t feel silly anymore: you feel kinda sexy, kinda cool. Lost in the fantasy of dance. In a single hour of Zumba perfection, it happens kind of like this:
I am dancing onstage with Ricky Martin at the Grammys. I am starring in a Bollywood movie. I am Baby in "Dirty Dancing" -- and nobody is going to put me in a corner.
I’ve just been told I'm the next contestant on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Just for me, Mia Michaels choreographs a touching contemporary routine about an organ transplant recipient and her dead donor (I play the dead girl. It’s easier). Tyce Diorio gives me a Broadway routine using a top hat, a banana and a Portuguese Water Dog as props.
I am transported back to my 5th grade tap dance class at the Margery Jones Academy of Dance, located in the Tremont Shopping Center, to a time when I had no reason not to believe than that my f-lap, f-lap, ball-change wouldn’t lead to dancing greatness, or to the life of a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. Or to longer legs.
I wanted to hate Zumba.
Instead, I’ve got my tennies on, water bottle in hand, and I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Raul, my new lady friends, and my imaginary date with Patrick Swayze, circa 1987. The music begins, and I am there, alone, with Johnny Castle. He takes my hand. Together, we do the Pachanga, followed by a magnificent crescendo, and I leap across the stage into his arms.
And I have the time-of-my-li-i-ife, and I owe it all to you-oo-ou, Zumba!