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My time as a Zumbie

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I always thought Zumba was something that happened to you when you hit your late-50s/early 60s. Like knee surgery and cereal with flaxseed I presumed it was an inevitable part of aging.

After a somewhat dispiriting workout at my gym last Wednesday, involving rope climbs and box jumps, I (half)jokingly posted that I was quitting the gym and taking up Zumba. I love Travis County Strength and my LIFT program especially but some days I miss our old Crossfit workouts where the warm-up took half the class and consisted of nice things like jumping jacks and push-ups and little quarter turns to the side. Free from the constraints of that gym’s programming our LIFT coach is intent on setting us all up for Ranger school.

Deciding to write a new post titled ‘too old for LIFT, not humiliated enough for Zumba’ I looked at a few Zumba websites to confirm my notions about the whole hideous enterprise. But in a rare nod to the journalist I once wanted to be, I decided to back up my writing by taking a class and experiencing it for myself. (FYI am now a brilliant social documenter and will probably be able to create a whole new solo show out of this material alone).


If you’re unfamiliar with Zumba it’s a Latin-inspired dance fitness program with the tagline ‘ditch the workout, join the party’. Despite the lack of alcohol or crisps these official Zumba party people do look happy enough in their bright clothing with their elbows at odd angles.

Austin has quite a few studios and gyms where you can take Zumba classes. Not wanting to go to anything sounding too Latino-y or drive further than a few miles, I signed up for a class at Austin Ballet School. This felt like a safe bet but I just hoped the class wouldn’t be too embarrassingly easy, like a Jazzercise thing. Ok I’ve never taken a Jazzercise class but I did once do something called Pump & Shred (it did neither).

I wasn’t entirely sure what to wear having heard horror stories about women wearing jangly things around their waist to be extra annoying in class (isn’t that called bellydancing?). But heading into the Ballet School I was pleased that this group looked fairly normal. There were about 15 of us, all white women, and dressed in mostly standard workout clothes.

Everyone was doing some general stretches, the kind you do whilst waiting around for something to start but which have no real purpose other than to give you the appearance of doing a vaguely athletic thing. So I joined in and did some ankle curls and arched my back a bit. Careful there.

The instructor, dressed in dancerish cargo pants and ripped shirt wasn’t very chatty. Turns out he was a sub. He did ask at the beginning of the class whether anyone was there for their first time. I didn’t bother to mention it figuring that he’d soon be able to work that out. Plus I didn’t want to be the one singled out for any kind of special attention – ‘don’t worry at the back, just do your best’.

As with any new venture I scanned the room hoping to find the person that will be at least as bad and hopefully worse than me. I notice an older woman but she looks disappointingly fit for her age. There’s a few others who don’t look in great shape but annoyingly seem to know what they’re doing. The woman closest to me has that kind of body where every move looks like Isadora Duncan. When she raises an arm it looks beautifully languid. I look like I’m at Nuremberg.

The music starts and I have no idea if this is a proper song off the radio or a made-for-Zumba song but it’s loud and the instructor calls out ‘here we go’ as if we’re on a beach in Ibiza in 1995. There’s a step to the left and the right and a clap on each side and I think ok I’ve got this thing figured, complete doddle. Hang on, what’s happening now, it’s all changing, there’s forwards and backwards and they’re making these weird motions with their arms and doing that thing with their elbows that makes me look like I’m doing the chicken dance. What the bloody hell is going on.

If I had mentioned to the instructor that I was new I might have learned that there is no instruction in Zumba, no talking you through the moves. You just have to watch and follow – which is what everyone else seems to be doing with no problems.

It gets worse with every song. This is serious choreography. Give me a set of pom poms and I’d be auditioning for the Dallas Cowboys Cheeerleaders. I’ve never tried to follow something so ridiculously complicated and wonder if I kick-ball-changed* into an advanced class by mistake. There’s no proper pattern to the moves, each song seems to have 4 or 5 different routines going on. We go into a step forward and backward kick motion and I’m admiring how graceful the girls in front of me look but then I catch sight of myself in the mirror and realize I look like a Fuseball player.

(and so much for that stupid advice to ‘dance like no-one is watching’ when there’s a massive room-length mirror to do exactly that in and thank your stars that you’re a better dancer than the poor lost blonde girl in the back who seems to be channelling a sapling in a stiff breeze)

At the end of each musical segment we get a bit of a breather, not that I really need one, perhaps because I have now swapped actual dancing for standing and just transferring weight from one foot to the other and flinging my arms out in the opposite direction in the hope that at some point I will be in the right place doing the right thing.

But that’s when it gets super serious and I’m back in. ‘Going down for real’ comes on and I know this song because I’ve heard it on America’s Got Talent and we’re in a quarter squat making punching movements with our arms and then doing three little jumps backwards. I feel like a proper thug. Except for the distracting squeak of my Asics on the highly polished dance floor.

I try not to catch the instructors eye but every time I do I notice he’s got a bit of an odd smile, the kind you get when you’re trying really hard not to laugh.

There’s also a lot of shimmying throughout the 45 minutes class and this just feels awkward and weird. Especially when wearing a chest-compressing sports bra. I do not know how to isolate my ‘shimmy’ muscles and I fear it comes across as a stiff and robotic side to side movement that’s about as sexy as Metamucil flakes. I try to catch the eye of the old lady in the hope of a shared sympathetic look but she’s clearly reached the age of no return and is throwing in a few pelvic thrusts and a cheeky wink at the instructor.

Finally we come to the cool down and stretching part. It’s still choreographed but I know a bicep stretch when I see one and that it’s inevitably going to transition into a tricep stretch. Hand to opposite ear for the neck stretch? Yep. I totally aced this.

I managed to get out of the class without having to interact with anyone and as I was leaving the center the front desk woman called out ‘how was it?’ as I had stupidly confessed to her that this was my first time.

‘Great thanks’.

I cannot wait to get back to LIFT on Monday. And I will (probably)never complain about rope climbs again.

*technical dance term and highly useful to know before attending Zumba or auditioning for Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

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