Looking back, I suppose I’d been hazily aware of it—the way you might recall that before you knew him, the love of your life used to come into the diner where you waitressed. “Oh, I’ve got my Zumba class,” a friend would say, and I’d picture Jane Fonda in a snap-crotch leotard. I had no idea, I want to explain now, the way you want to apologize to everyone who gave birth before you did, when you sent teensy pajamas and best wishes, not understanding that this person had been torn in half and shoved into a black hole of devotion. Not that Zumba is that; it’s more like being in love with the whole world. And to think it was happening to people all around me—when I hardly even knew it existed!

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.


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