To many, Zumba probably throws up images of church hall classes with dodgy music and retro outfits. For writer Sadia Nowshin, however, the Latin dance movement offered a surprisingly inclusive, accessible and judgement-free way into fitness.
I’ve always been worried about embarrassing myself at the gym. Every time I’ve edged towards buying a membership, the thought of starring in one of those viral videos of a rookie hilariously misunderstanding how to use a machine stops me in my tracks. So, when my mum asked me to go to a local Zumba class with her a couple of years ago, I surprised myself by saying yes.
My fear of feeling embarrassed was increased tenfold by adding Latin music, a wall-length mirror and my two left feet to the mix, but I went along anyway. I’m glad I did because that class completely transformed the way I feel about fitness – and here’s how it could do the same for you.
As someone who is constantly comparing herself to others as a measure of success, the lack of expectation attached to Zumba removed the pressure that puts me off enjoying more conventional forms of exercise. There’s no personal best to feel glum about falling short on, no lap time for acquaintances to share on social media that I then secretly aim to beat. Missing a step (or three) does little to stop my flow, as the repetitive, clear movements are easy to fall back into time with – and there’s no risk of my mistake being noticed, as everyone else is concentrating just as hard on their own coordination.
The spontaneity of the exercise dates back to its 1998 origins: the fitness class came about when Colombian dancer Alberto “Beto” Perez realised that he had forgotten the usual music that would accompany his aerobics class, and popped on a Latin cassette instead. The class became an accidental hit and in 2001, it was officially branded Zumba.
Though they all serve a similar end purpose, there’s something about the feeling you get in a Zumba class that sets it apart from other forms of exercise. For Zumba enthusiast Cristina Puerta, the benefits of a Zumba session are clearest when set in contrast to other forms of fitness that she enjoys. While trail running across mountains makes her feel “invincible”, Zumba has helped her to “love my body and my skin, no matter my size.” She told Stylist that being able to “change my attitude and feel sexy and powerful, or funny and stupid depending on the choreography” put the control of the class in her hands, giving her the freedom to tailor every class to her mood that day.
Like Cristina, fellow class-goer Nikki Scrivener found that the confidence she gained from dancing helped her to let go of her insecurities. “I never feel self-conscious [in a class], which is not always easy to achieve when you’re in your 40s. I just go for it – trying to pull off moves that I would never consider trying on a dancefloor and really shouldn’t be seen in public!” she said, adding that while the fitness part of the class is a plus, her attendance is “much more about the mental health benefits.”
And those mental health benefits aren’t exclusive to Nikki. As her instructor, PT Sara McFall, highlighted: “You can dance like nobody’s watching and it makes you feel alive. It does something to your brain.” And she’s right: one study found that dancing as a form of exercise releases dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins, which are all dubbed the “happy hormones”. Notably, the release of dopamine is key to the brain’s reward pathway, which encourages us to pursue new experiences and feel more positive about life and, by extension, about ourselves.
Alongside the self-confidence boost, one of Zumba’s best features is its accessibility. 27-year-old Hattie D’Souza shared that “despite being really high-energy, Zumba is also really accessible for entry-level fitness,” with a focus on “working new muscles in a way that feels really inclusive.” And the diversity of the class is a nod to that inclusivity: stereotypically the class of choice for preppy mums, the classes I’ve attended have been populated by everyone from fellow 20-somethings to a lady in her 70s whose stamina put us all to shame. Hattie shared a similar experience, adding that her fellow attendees ranged from “friends from the local college and families looking to do something together, to people that lived in the retirement village across the road.”
For some, Zumba’s accessibility has provided a lifeline. After suffering injuries from a traffic collision in 2011 that left her unable to continue with the sports she loved, Zumba instructor Anisha Gangotra found solace in the freedom that classes offered: “I could do what my body was able to at the time with the injuries that I had and just get lost in the music.”
Alongside helping her gradually recover from her physical injuries, the classes were also instrumental in coping with the post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety that the incident caused, and provided Anisha with a “community who loved to dance their cares away.” Inspired by how vital Zumba proved to be in her journey to recovery, she became an instructor in 2015 with the goal to “provide a safe space” for people with obstacles to exercise to “enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of moving to music and building a sense of community.” That tangible sense of community is also rooted in science: a 2017 study, published in the American Journal of Dance Therapy, found that oxytocin – which fuels interpersonal trust – is released when people move together. So, the synchronisation of dancing forges a chemical connection of support between members of the group, cultivating that inclusive atmosphere that’s so key to the Zumba classroom.
The experience of 42-year-old Sue, who has been teaching Zumba classes for over 10 years and is a further testament to how important Zumba’s flexibility can be. After falling in love with the exercise, she took the step towards teaching almost ten years ago. Then, in 2015, she suffered a serious back injury that made participation in regular classes difficult. For Sue, discovering Zumba Gold – a less intense class ideal for those looking for a lower impact workout – allowed her to recover from a “very painful and debilitating situation” and build her physical and mental confidence back up again. Both Anisha and Sue found Zumba to be a salvation in times of hardship, and now create that experience for others in need of the boost.
Leaning into the absence of expectation in Zumba has helped me – and countless other self-conscious gym-goers – to gain newfound confidence when it comes to fitness. That flexibility, and the freedom to feel however I want to for the duration of that class, is what allows me to let go of my inhibitions and enjoy myself. Spending an hour dancing my cares away offers a rare moment of quieting the voice in my head that tells me I look ridiculous, because looking a little ridiculous is the entire point of the class.
The increase of one of those happy hormones could be to thank for that: known for calming the mind, serotonin is also credited with distracting us from the worries – or self-conscious thoughts, in my case – that otherwise occupy our minds.
It feels great to have finally found exercise that I find genuinely fun, and more crucially, learning how to shut that self-deprecating voice off and enjoy my workout has made the route into other areas of fitness feel a little less daunting. I may not be heading for the complicated resistance machines or attempting a bench press just yet, but I can venture onto the treadmill and take baby steps into the space that intimidated me for so long – and I count that as a win. After all, progress is a marathon rather than a sprint, and I’m ready to Zumba my way towards the finish line.
Images: Getty, Hannah D’Souza, Sara McFall
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