Alex Pollack wasn’t sure how he felt having his mom scream “booty work” at a crowd of dance-crazed strangers. So he took one of her classes to find out.
“Booty work!” she shouts into her wireless headset. The instructor, an enthusiastic blonde in her early twenties, performs a half-squat and lifts her glutes in rhythm to Katy Perry’s “Roar”. “Booty work, everybody!”
I’m a twenty-eight year old man who has never really shaken what the good Lord has given him. I’ve moved my hips, sure, but to engage in “booty work”? I’ve never dreamed of associating my “booty” with any kind of labor. When I try to comply with my instructor’s request, I end up looking like a white guy dancing in a Dave Chappelle skit about white guys dancing. Zumba.com tells me that Zumba is “a fitness-party that blends upbeat rhythms with easy-to-follow choreography, for a total-body workout that feels like a celebration.” So here I am, one of two men “celebrating” Zumba in a class with thirty-seven college-aged women.
“Get crazy!” my instructor says. If I were confused when she said “booty work,” I’m even more confused now. What I gather from the women in the next row is that “get crazy” means to improvise a dance step in between the more structured moves we’ve been executing. And so I “get crazy” by making a fist and pounding my chest in full King-Kong-ain’t-got-nothin’-on-me mode. Did I really sign up for this?
We’re excused to get a drink of water. I feel my forehead; am I sweating? A little bit, but not as much as I had in some of the other exercise classes I’ve taken. I might not be a natural dancer, but I’m holding my own in the class, which is preparation for a second Zumba class I will take later this week. That class will be taught by a different instructor, one I’ve known for many years. She is the one who’d given me a swirly straw, a glass of milk, and a plate of Oreos before many childhood bedtimes. She’s the one who’d read me Bernstein Bears, who’d signed me up for swim lessons but let me quit when I didn’t like them, who’d chauffeured me to soccer, basketball, tennis, and sleepovers, who’d been not only family to me, but a confidant and a friend. I’m talking about my mom, or as I’ve grown to call her more recently, Zumba Queen.
“How did it go?” my mom asks me on the phone after my first Zumba class. I tell her about the “bootywork” and the “get crazy” and how I sweated a little bit but not enough and how the instructor didn’t talk enough in class.
“Right,” my mom says. “You’re not supposed to talk in Zumba.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Made things confusing.”
“I do know,” she says. “The instructor is not supposed to talk in Zumba.”
My mom became a certified Zumba instructor in early 2009, and soon after lassoed control of classes at the YMCA and Curves where she salsaed and high-kicked before dozens of appreciative suburban women who mimed her every move. Or at least that’s what I figured she was doing, for I didn’t attend any of her classes. I didn’t feel like it was “my thing”; I was too much of a man to shake my hips. And so I treated her new gig with a mixture of bemusement and casual support; I helped her buy songs off iTunes for her playlists, all while wearing a little punchable smirk on my face. It was adorable, my sister Anna and I agreed, that mom was AGE REDACTED and arranging choreography to sorority girl acts like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Maroon 5. “Alex, do you know the new Pitbull song?” my mom would ask, and I’d laugh and she’d say, “What’s so funny?” “It’s just that you suddenly know more about pop music than Anna and me. It’s adorable.” “Stop calling me adorable!” my mom would say. “I’m not a doll!”
But what was I supposed to say when she clicked on “Rude Boy” three times and bought three copies of the same song on iTunes, and then called my sister and me in a frantic “WHAT DID I JUST DO” state? My sister and I got a big kick out of any and all scenarios involving Mom and Zumba, no matter they real or imagined. One time we decided that it would be hilarious if our mom would take over my sister’s wedding reception with an impromptu and bizarre Zumba dance demonstration that would begin with the DJ killing the lights and my mom busting through a huge paper sheet to the beats of “Fire burning, fire burning, on the dance floor.” The wedding guests would be puzzled, forks and knives suspended in the air near their mouths.
When I was home one summer, I tried to ape my mom’s moves when she practiced in the living room before her class. I tried to match her step for step as if it was profound comedic performance art (think the wild gesticulations and arched eye brows of The Mask era Jim Carrey), until I ran out of breath thanks to the kangaroo pouch of fat I’d developed thanks to one too many Orville Redenbachers.
Four years later, what’s changed? Well, after trying a few fitness classes and whittling away my kangaroo pouch, I’ve decided I’d be a fool not see how my mom runs a class. As an adult, I talk to my mom about everything from our daily routines to our dreams and our fears, but I’ve never been in a place where I’ve had to see my mom inhabiting a role other than that of My Mom, a title I’m eternally thankful she’s assumed.
“Do you feel pressure? I’m coming to your class!” I tell her. It’s 7 am but I’m dressed and ready in my gym shorts and sneakers. “Please,” she says, dismissing me. She fills her water bottle. We’re in the kitchen. This is our stage.
But an hour later, the stage is new and unfamiliar. It’s Fitness Studio A in the YMCA, and I’m waiting not for My Mom, but for “Kira the Zumba Instructor”. The class is made up of rows of stretching women trying to get a dose of cardio before they go to work and/or drive their kids to school. “Kira” strides into the class and walks straight to the stereo system. She’s composed, confident, in control. The music starts, and the rows of women straighten and wait, as if she is the sergeant and they are the soldiers. Without a word, she nods, points to the left, and suddenly, the class like a whole, live organism, moves to the left.
I want to find some humor, something I could share later with my sister, but I’m not finding any. Before long I’m sweating more than I did with the twenty-something instructor. After each song, Kira claps quickly, and the rows of women imitate her clap with the same speed and sound. She nods to the right; we all move to the right. She nods to the front; we all move to the front. We jump, we turn, we kick, we slide, we salsa. Her quiet poise rubs off on us; we get pumped up and go, go, go without any screams of “booty work” or “get crazy”. I no longer feel bemused or casually supportive of my mom’s Zumba expertise; the only word I can come up with now is proud. She is the Zumba Queen, we are her royal subjects, and there’s nothing funny or adorable about it.