Zumba. Most guys have heard of it, but few know exactly what it is.
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A quick rundown of what Zumba isn't:
-- The speediest Roomba model
-- A brand of bath salts
-- The Brazilian soccer team's top striker
It is a dance fitness program, which is the simple way to say it.
More accurately, Zumba is the Huffington Post of cardio workouts. It unapologetically aggregates every other cardio dance workout in its path, consuming all.
A single Zumba class might include salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton, Arabian rhythms, country, samba, cha-cha-cha, belly dance, bhangra, soca, martial arts, belly dance, hip-hop, world rhythms and, possibly, the “Ickey Shuffle.”
Zumba was brought to the United States in 1999 by Alberto “Beto” Perez. Perez invented the workout as a 16-year-old aerobics instructor in his native Colombia when he forgot the music for a class and used an eclectic mixed tape instead.
His students loved it.
In 2001 he and his American business partners launched Zumba Fitness in the states. Today Zumba Fitness says it is the most popular branded fitness program in the world, and is being used in 125 countries by more than 12 million people every week.
While there’s been no outside study of the gender breakdown of those classes, I’m willing to bet about 95 percent of them are female.
The women I talked to while reporting this article said that they never or rarely see men in their Zumba classes.
A Zumba Fitness spokesperson said the official numbers are 80 percent women and 20 percent men, but at least one Los Angeles studio owner agreed with my 95/5 assessment based on attendance there.
The reasons for this are not just specific to Zumba – men in general prefer to work out alone, while women make up the majority of most cardio classes.
But Zumba, as opposed to dance classes like hip-hop and breakdancing, which at least get a smattering of dudes, seems especially unpopular with men.
The question is: Why? Why don’t men Zumba? I set out to find the answer.
As it turns out, there are a few reasons. And one of them involves mustard stains.
What Zumba Classes Are Really Like
I enrolled at Your Neighborhood Studio in Culver City, where the rooms have wood floors, ballet barres and floor-to-ceiling mirrors that provide ample opportunity to see every mistake you make during each routine.
The instructor began each song by silently introducing a series of dance steps no American man has ever performed outside of an NFL touchdown celebration.
The typical routine went like this: Two-steps-left, kick-pivot, two-steps-right, kick-pivot.
We’d repeat those steps a few times. I’d get better at the moves. Got it. Awesome.
But then –wait, what?– the instructor would introduce a whole new sequence.
Some women, such as my wife, magically got the dance steps as they happened.
Meanwhile, I’m tripping over my feet and saying to myself (or possibly out loud, I can’t quite remember), “What was wrong with the last sequence? I was NAILING IT! Now it’s crossover-right-spin, crossover-left- spin?
Why must we always change? Why is no sequence ever good enough? Why can’t we just do the same two steps for the next 45 minutes? Crossover-right-spin, crossover-left- spin is bull crap! Faaaahhhhh!!!!”
In Zumba you do 10 to 12 songs in an average class, so I basically just became more unhinged with each new track.
Despite my pining, pleading, and begging for the return of two-steps-left, kick-pivot, two-steps-right, kick-pivot, it never came back. Instead we always moved on to some new walk-like-an-Egyptian-while-lunging crap, which everyone else seemed to love and be totally capable of doing.
So, that’s the first main thing I noticed, which I think cuts to the heart of why many men avoid Zumba.
I had no idea what I was doing most of the time, knew I looked like an idiot, and every new sequence made me want to punt the MP3 player.
Why? Zumba took me out of my element and put me face-to-face with my insecurities.
Because of that giant mirror, I got to see every mistake I made.
There I was, a step behind, turning the wrong way, or just sort of hopping up and down in place, looking confused. (The instructors don’t teach this step, but it’s pretty much the first move you learn and the only one you’ll do during every song. It’s crucial.) And for men, that sucks. As a guy, you want to be the best in the room – especially if that room is full of fit women. When you’re not, it’s humbling.
But here is the saddest part of all, and it didn’t occur to me until around my third class: My shame, embarrassment and towering loathing for my inability to move my body in sync with the music and the instructor, was all coming from within.
Not once did a teacher or classmate say anything about how poorly I danced. No one made a single critical, pitying or mocking glance. No one seemed to even notice my struggles.
Yet I felt stupid.
As it turns out, I was suffering from what psychologists call “The Spotlight Effect.”
The Spotlight Effect is the tendency to overestimate the extent to which your actions and appearance are noted by others. Most people do this, especially teenagers who walk around high school while looking down at the floor.
It is natural to think everyone is looking at you all the time, like when you’re sure everyone at the party will notice the mustard stain on your jeans. But as researchers at Cornell concluded in a 2000 paper in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” it’s more likely that no one is looking at you.
No one is obsessing about that yellow glob but you.
My female classmates ranged in age from 20s to 60s. Their skill level was all over the place. But there was no judging.
At first, I felt almost crippled with fear over what these people – these nice people who I didn’t know, and probably would never see again – would think of me.
Even though science tells me that they likely didn’t even notice.
When I asked Zumba creator “Beto” Perez how to increase male interest in Zumba, he said, “Men just need to get over their insecurities.”
That’s easier said than done.
What Men Are Missing About Zumba
My embarrassment and fear were eventually overridden by an even more intense sensation: Exhaustion.
In Zumba, the movement is almost non-stop.
There are five-second breaks between songs, enough time for a quick towel or a drink of water, but no real rest. The sweat pours quickly and heavily because you’re using every muscle in your body.
Perez says that Zumba doesn’t feel like a workout, and he’s right. Zumba feels like a wedding reception where you never leave the dance floor and every song is a line dance choreographed by an ADD-addled bridesmaid.
It took two classes, but I eventually began to lose my inhibitions. I began, to borrow a phrase, to dance like nobody was watching.
I stepped, shimmied and shook. I spun and didn’t knock anyone over. I was actually having fun.
And I discovered what women worldwide already knew: Zumba is a good workout.
You burn about the same number of calories you would on a treadmill, but there are more challenges and a greater variety of muscle movements. As you get better at the moves, you experience more enjoyment from the class – and a sense of achievement.
Zumba’s biggest upside: Time flies.
A lot of working out is monotonous, and when you’re bored, time creeps by slowly.
With Zumba, you’re learning dance steps, memorizing them, putting them into combinations, paying attention to the instructor, keeping your distance from the people around you and listening to the music for cues. The time passes quickly as you focus your mind and body on performing the moves – and not looking like Don Knotts while you do.
It is now months later, and I still pop into the occasional Zumba class.
Chesapeake, Va., YMCA Zumba instructor Alice Warchol said the classes pass quickly even for the most experienced students.
I am not what anyone would call experienced yet, but I agree.
“The more that you know a routine the easier it is to work out,” she said. “You completely lose yourself in it.”
A total body workout that is challenging, helps you become a better dancer, makes time pass quickly, and puts you in a room with 20 women?
Perhaps the real question is why isn’t EVERY guy doing Zumba?
So ignore the mustard stain.