Zumba: It's Like Being In Love With the Whole World
I took it up because I wanted to feel better as losses were accruing in my middle-aged life like apples in a basket: our nearest and dearest getting divorced, getting sick, dying. I picked Zumba instead of therapy or religion, but it turned out to be a little of both. Even if, yes, it initially felt as though everyone else was in a springy human body while I’d been issued a sack full of logs. To me, salsa and merengue were recipes, not Latin dance styles. I could neither get my body to do the things nor understand what the things even were: torsos rippling, arms making shapes like Miss Mary Mack on crack. What was happening?
“What is happening?” I whispered to my neighbor. While I’m the type who naturally sways a little to Van Morrison, I was baffled by the rows of people shaking it in synchrony. Trying to communicate the routine from eyes to brain to hips was like trying to solve for x when x was on Mars. Like trying to pound a square peg into a round matzo ball. But when “Despacito” came on, I had to stop myself from yelling, “Oh my God, I know this song!” Even my parents know that song.
At home, I shimmied to Daddy Yankee’s “Shaky Shaky” while I fluffed quinoa. My 18-year-old son laughed at my playlist. “Flo Rida?” he said. “That’s not Joni Mitchell!” It’s not. And Zumba is not running, which makes it unlike anything else I have ever considered to be working out. I’d been under the impression that exercise was a punitive act—but what was I atoning for? Having a body? Having a woman’s body? A childbearing body, with silvery stretch marks and curtains of flesh that had to be disciplined? I hadn’t realized: You can enjoy endorphin-fed bliss without suffering first. This is the secret I’m sharing with you now.
Do you know “Wild Geese,” the Mary Oliver poem? “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” The soft animal of this body is not repenting, and what it loves is my dazzling Zumba teacher, in her tank top that says I DON'T SWEAT. I LEAK AWESOME. I remind myself of the feminist theory students I used to teach, the ones who showed up at office hours with their newly shaved heads to confess that they’d fallen for me, and I had to gently explain, “You’re just really excited about feminism.” “You’re really excited about Zumba!” says my 14-year-old daughter when I gush about my teacher’s smile. I smile back like a baby in some doting someone’s lap, mirroring human joy.
At a wedding recently, I asked the DJ to play “Despacito,” then dirty danced with my sister-in-law, who is herself a Zumba teacher and the sexiest person I know. “Look at this girl!” she cried while I pressed up against her, laughing with the craziness of the newly converted. “I love you so much!” I wanted to say to her, my kids, my husband, my nieces and nephews, my father-in-law, everyone radiantly beautiful and imperfectly perfect. Instead, I just grinned until my face hurt, my body fizzing with delight, popping its cork like a bottle of crazy, shaken Champagne.
Catherine Newman is the author of, most recently, Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years.