Elizabeth Thackery had tried everything to get the weight off.
Dieting, swimming, home exercise — nothing gave her the motivation she needed to move the needle below 280 pounds, where her weight seemed stuck since she gave birth to her third child and experienced a bout of fatigue from Lyme disease.
One day, a friend persuaded her to try a Zumba® class, and Thackery said she felt awkward at first because she was the largest woman there. But she gave it a go.
“I was working so hard I wanted to throw up,” she added.
However, by the end of the first class, she was hooked. She realized Zumba wasn’t just a good workout — it was fun. She loved the Latin music, the stress relief she got from dancing, and the energy of the class. She started attending once a week, then twice, then three times, losing over 85 pounds her first year.
The second year, she dropped 25 more pounds as she toned her muscles and burned more fat, going from size 24 down to a 10 or 12.
Today, she is a Zumba instructor, and when she isn’t teaching, she works out with a personal trainer.
“My life is forever changed,” she says.
Though not a life-changing experience for most, Zumba, a Latin-inspired dance-exercise class, has taken gyms in the U.S. and abroad by storm over the past decade, and is currently attended by over 15 million people in 180 countries at 200,000 sites around the world, according to the Zumba Club website.
“It’s an international sensation,” says Joan Davila, a Zumba instructor at Sanctuary Bodyworks in Baltimore.
Routines are based on a variety of Latin dances, including salsa, merengue, cumbia, and reggaeton, with some hip-hop thrown in. Instructors can use music and choreography provided by the Zumba Club’s network, as Davila does, or put together their own routines. Every class is different, she says, but “we all read from the same bible.”
Zumba is a great cardio workout incorporating lower-body toning with hip swinging and leg movement, Davila says. “You can burn hundreds of calories an hour, and it beats the heck out of a treadmill.”
Zumba is effective for burning calories, agrees Gretchen Eisenberg of Frederick, a certified personal trainer who works with Thackery. But because of its fast lateral hip and knee movements, if you’ve had an injury or have been sedentary for a long time, it’s best to check with your doctor first, she adds.
Something for everyone
Those who don’t feel up to a full-on Zumba workout can try Zumba Gold, whose instructors demonstrate a low-impact version of the movements to go easier on the joints. Though seniors tend to gravitate there, Gold is for anyone who likes a slower pace or has joint problems, Davila says.
There are also Zumba Kids classes, Aqua Zumba for those who want to work out in a pool, and several other varieties.
“Everybody across the board can do it,” Davila says.
Like Thackery, some are intimidated at first.
“They say, ‘I’m shy; I don’t know Latin dance; I don’t have rhythm,’” Davila says. “But after the class, they get the Latin beast and forget all about looking silly.”
It started with a mistake
Zumba was born in Cali, Colombia, in the mid-1990s when fitness trainer Alberto (“Beto”) Perez forgot his aerobics music one day and substituted Latin tapes from his car. When it caught on, he packaged the routine into a class, moved to the US … and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Fads come and go, but Zumba has been around for 10 or 15 years, and is still growing in popularity,” says Davila, who is thinking of adding more classes to her schedule due to demand.
Mind and body
Students say Zumba gives them a psychological, as well as a physical boost.
“One student came up to me with a tear in her eye saying, ‘I’ve felt like a nerd all my life, but now I feel confident.’ Another said her mom was in the hospital with cancer, and this gets her through the week,’” Davila says.
“Before I saw fitness benefits, I saw sanity benefits,” says Thackery, who now teaches Zumba Kids and Zumba Gold.
“I encourage the older adults and the very overweight to try it,” Thackery says. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
— Teresa Meek, Tribune Content Solutions