I am no good at Zumba.
I lack the pep, the attitude, the unashamed willingness to march, hip-shake, shoulder-shimmy, twirl and pelvic-thrust sober in a room full of strangers. Give me running or spinning or kick-boxing any day.
(Zumba, for the uninitiated, is a dance-fitness program that aims to whip you into shape using choreography set to international music. It prides itself on being a “fitness party.”)
By circumstances outside of my control (the spinning class was full), I recently found myself in a Zumba class at the gym. The room was packed with middle-aged women eagerly high-stepping on the spot even before the music—loud and Latin—started.
The instructor, wearing hot pink and purple, started the class off with a whoop and I couldn’t help but grin. It’s the happiest I’ve felt to be new to Montreal and know almost no one—it's hard to be embarrassed when you’re anonymous. But the feeling didn't last: I inwardly rolled my eyes for the first half of the class, watching the clock and waiting for the hour to end so I’d never have to Zumba again.
But then I started to watch the people, and not just their feet. They were really into it. One guy in the front row had a particularly enviable sashay. Otherwise, the class was overwhelmingly comprised of women. Middle-aged women. It’s a chance for them to let loose. They swivelled their hips proudly and wiped the sweat from their brow. They cheered and whooped, clapping after each song and grinning at their friends. It’s an empowering sort of workout, and it experienced a major surge in popularity two years ago—in an American College of Sports Medicine survey on the top fitness trends of 2012, Zumba appeared for the first time in the top twenty, ranking ninth. Pilates didn’t even make the list. Yet this year’s survey predicted Zumba was just a fad—the dance workout didn’t make the top twenty, bumped by high-intensity interval training and body weight training.
Still, 14 million people practice the dance workout in 185 countries, according to Zumba’s website. And I know the Zumba classes at my gym are packed with women who attend religiously. I’d guess it’s not just the creative choreography and frenzied beats that keep them coming back. It’s the entire environment, the community of women and all that it enables: the power to move freely, seductively, without fear of judgment or drawing unwanted attention, the opportunity to laugh and be silly while still doing something good for your body.
The message is clear: you can be both feminine and empowered. And while that sounds obvious, it’s still viewed by some people as a contradiction, as though the two are mutually exclusive. As though being feminine undermines your status as a strong woman.
This isn’t just about Zumba—the can’t-have-it-both-ways mentality is often imposed, by men and women, on women who cultivate or take pride in their femininity and appearance.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in Elle Magazine last month of the conflict she felt between being stylish and intelligent:
“A fellow aspiring writer said of one faculty member, ‘Look at that dress and makeup! You can’t take her seriously.’ I thought the woman looked attractive, and I admired the grace with which she walked in her heels. But I found myself quickly agreeing. Yes, indeed, one could not take this author of three novels seriously, because she wore a pretty dress and two shades of eye shadow … Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance. For serious women writers in particular, it was better not to dress well at all, and if you did, then it was best to pretend that you had not put much thought into it.”
It’s similar to the outcry over Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover. Jezebel criticized the magazine for photoshopping Dunham’s photos, in large part because Dunham is a feminist who’s vocal about unrealistic body ideals, and offered $10,000 for the original images.
Unsurprisingly, Dunham wasn’t pleased about the bounty, and said people’s anger over the cover confused her.
“I feel like the magazine really gave a nod to who I am and didn't try to wedge me into any sort of strange glamazon territory that isn't appropriate to me,” she said. “At first I was like, I don’t need a hairdresser, I don’t need a makeup artist. And then I looked at myself on television and I was like, I'd like to have all the advantages of the people of my profession.”
The risk for women in expressing an interest in activities that skew female, like shopping or getting manicures (or, in Dunham’s case, participating in the Vogue experience of designer dresses, make-up and very minor photoshopping), is they open themselves up for criticisms that they don’t want to be taken seriously, that they’re surrendering their right to be empowered.
Zumba is one of these women-centric activities. It’s not a boot camp; there’s no competitive aspect, no bro-grunting, no intimidating ex-Marine instructor shouting insults. But that’s not a bad thing—Zumba’s inclusivity is, I think, what continues to draw women to the workout.
And why women my mom’s age? The style of workout—fun, communal, upbeat—appeals to them. For women juggling a career and kids, it’s likely a challenge to carve out personal time in their schedule. Zumba, for these women, may serve two purposes: it provides a social environment and a good sweat.
When the class ends, everyone’s glowing. The women clap and the instructor cheers, and I feel like they’ve ushered me into their girl-power club. I have to admit, it’s a good feeling.