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Women doing zumba

Sunday through Friday, my workout routine is pretty routine. I lift weights. I swing kettlebells. I run, walk, and hike. There is some variation in activity, duration, and intensity, but I generally know what I’m getting into. And, with the occasional exception, I am facing forward, moving forward, striving forward the entire time.

On Saturdays, though, linearity and predictability go out the window. From 10 to 11 a.m., I step forward only to shuffle back, jump to the side, or swirl in a circle. I spread my arms wide and shake my hips. I close my eyes and let the musical stylings of Mr. Worldwide and other Latin artists carry me.

Sunday through Friday, I stick to a plan.

Saturdays, I Zumba.

Zumba and I were not always a perfect match. The first class I took back in 2011 frustrated me. I couldn’t figure out the choreography, and when I looked around the room, it seemed like every participant was dancing to their own beat and doing their own variation of the moves. I was attached to “getting it right” and flabbergasted that no one else seemed to care. I swore off Zumba as good for you, not for me, and didn’t look back.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2019, when my best friend heard about an outdoor Zumba class on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Since moving to Minnesota, I’ve adopted the mentality that it’s vital to spend as much time as possible outside during the summer to make up for the lack of sunlight in the winter; this attitude outweighed any old resentment I harbored toward Zumba, and we went for it.

When I say that I had the time of my life, I am not exaggerating. Our instructor, Bernice, led us through a series of choreographed dances drawing from salsa, hip-hop, flamenco, and contemporary styles. For 60 minutes, I dripped sweat and smiled until my face hurt — and then kept on smiling.

Just like that first class in 2011, I stumbled and found it almost impossible to follow along. I looked around and again found some people who knew exactly what to do and others who were doing their own thing.

This time, instead of feeling frustrated about not “getting it right,” I felt so happy. Happy to be outside. Happy to be moving my body in new and different ways. Happy to be surrounded by people of different ages, genders, skill levels, body types, and backgrounds. Everyone, and every body, was welcomed and accommodated.

It didn’t hurt that Bernice had supplied us with multicolored hip scarves covered in coins that jangled with our hip movements. The more I jangled, the less concerned I became about perfecting the steps. Never before in a fitness setting had the phrase “Progress, not perfection” felt so organically true.

During those first classes, I focused simply on finding the beat. In time, I began to nail the steps I’d struggled with. The swerving, spiraling movements that had felt foreign to my hips and shoulders — so accustomed to operating primarily squared off on the sagittal plane — began to feel natural.

Zumba is undoubtedly a great physical workout that boosts the heart rate and enhances coordination. For me, because it was so different from how I moved on a day-to-day basis, Zumba broke up the monotony that had come to characterize my movements.

Over the winter, when dancing outdoors was no longer an option, I stopped doing Zumba altogether. My body missed it before my mind did, and I noticed I was stiffening up — literally in my body, but also figuratively: I felt stuck in my routine. Before the doldrums truly settled in, I found a Saturday-morning class near my house.

Months had passed, but as the music came up, I found my footing and the by-now familiar one-two-three beat of salsa steps so ubiquitous in Zumba. The choreography was brand new, and I stumbled and flailed. But I focused on the beat and delighted in the jangling of my hip scarf.

And before long, I was once again a giddy, twirling dancing queen.

This originally appeared as “Dancing Queen” in the June 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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