Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever called me mami — “sexy” in Spanish slang. Salsa is something I buy at Shaw’s, not a dance I would perform in public. And my merengue has always been as stiff as, well, a meringue. But somehow, I find myself intrigued by Zumba, a Latin dance and fitness class that recently arrived in the Burlington area thanks to instructor Gen Burnell.
“My one-hour class incorporates footwork and body movements from flamenco, salsa, merengue and other traditional Latin dance moves, combined with aerobics and interval training,” writes Burnell in an email. “This is the exercise that doesn’t feel like an exercise — the time flies and it’s more like a dance party than anything.”
After months of watching the minutes tick by on a treadmill while my infant daughter plays at the gym’s nursery, I’m ready for my workout time to fly. Never mind that my dance parties usually result in broken vases on the living-room floor, and that I long ago deemed myself genetically incapable of following aerobics moves. I email Burnell back, saying I’m interested in Zumba. She signs me up for an early November class at South Burlington’s Fitness Options studio.
“I’m still in my introductory and beginner phase,” Burnell promises. “Although it does get pretty fast-paced — I’m not going to lie.”
In advance of the Saturday morning class, I do some research and learn that Zumba’s growth since it first arrived in the United States has been nearly as fast-paced as its moves. The new fitness fad took its first steps leaning on Colombian trainer Beto Perez, who improvised a Latin aerobics class in the mid-1990s.
Perez brought the class to the States in 1999 and found two partners who helped him establish a company to teach it everywhere. More than 9000 instructors now demo the moves in 30-plus countries, and more than 3 million instructional DVDs have sold, making Zumba “the world’s largest Latin-inspired fitness system,” according to the organization. (OK, maybe it’s the world’s only Latin-inspired fitness system. Unless you count the Lambada.)
Burnell, who grew up in Underhill, discovered Zumba in early 2006 while living in Portland, Maine. “I’ve never been able to stick to an exercise plan, and the idea of going to a gym and just walking on a treadmill was terrifying to me,” she tells me by phone on the Friday before the class. “And I’m not a dancer; I had no dance training whatsoever, but with Zumba, I looked up and 45 minutes had gone by and I couldn’t believe it — it was so much fun.”
Zumba classes combined with a Weight Watchers program helped Burnell lose 25 pounds. In September 2006, she became a certified Zumba instructor, and a move back to Vermont in February 2007 gave her a new place to ply the trade. Since May, the Colchester resident — now also the director of communications for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce — has been teaching Zumba at Fitness Options to some half a dozen students.
“Interest is growing,” Burnell says, as she reminds me to wear yoga-type clothes and court shoes to class. (Running shoes inhibit side-to-side motion.) “But putting Zumba into words is a very hard thing to do.”
Indeed, it’s hard to put into words just what I’m doing as I attempt to follow Burnell’s “funky walk,” which kicks off class the next day. The 27-year-old instructor moves like J-Lo, all hips and booty and loose arms. I move like a Buckingham Palace guard who’s tippled a pint too many.
“You got it,” Burnell tells me and four other students as she claps. A slow song on Spanish guitar plays on the stereo. “Just walk in place with a little bit of funk.”
This is more funny than funky, I think, giggling as I imagine what my friends and family would say if they could see me trying to shimmy my shoulders.
Every once in a while, for inspiration, I glance over at Alice Day-Aparicio, who has Puerto Rican roots. She lived in New York City for 30 years before moving to Vermont, and she’s driven all the way from Proctor to attend today’s class. “It’s an easy way to exercise, have fun and get a good workout,” Day-Aparicio affirms.
I wouldn’t classify the “hip-hop lunge” that Burnell now demonstrates as “easy,” but once I stop thinking about what I look like, I start to get the hang of it. Now I’m moving more like a deranged marionette. It’s a step in the right direction, I figure. “Ay yi yi!” yells Burnell, encouraging us.
Zumba rules dictate that 70 percent of the music must be Latin or international. The next song on Burnell’s line-up is the Reggaeton hit “Gasolina,” by someone called Daddy Yankee, I learn later. “Da me mas gasolina!” the stereo booms as we deepen the moves in our hips. Just as I’m feeling the beat, Burnell switches to the up-tempo “You’re the One That I Want,” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, to accompany some foot stomping and arm movements. Next comes a super-speedy version of Lil Jon’s “Get Low.”
“Whoo-hoo, take it across!” Burnell shouts as we start scuttling back and forth across the hardwood floor. “You’re doing awesome!”
Unlike other fitness classes that focus consistently on muscle, Zumba lets participants get loose with their bodies. When Lil Jon sings, “Now stop (O), then wiggle wit it,” we really do. And during the next song — a remix of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” — Burnell reminds us to let our gummy parts go. “Perfect — it’s all jelly right here, no muscle!” she says, pointing to her belly.
Zumba does have its strength-training components, however. Toward the end of the class, when I’m shaking it like Shakira, Burnell guides us into some arm lifts with 3-pound weights, and then into the “butts and guts” portion, during which we do crunches and bridges. Eventually, the class ends with stretching to another slow, Latin-inspired song.
I look at the clock and notice that an hour has gone by. It has been the fastest and most fun hour of exercise I’ve ever experienced. Fun, in fact, seems to be the one word everyone associates with Zumba.
“It’s a fun challenge,” says Camille Selvaggi, a Williston resident who has become one of Burnell’s regulars in the last few months.
After just one Zumba class, I’m not ready to show off my salsa and merengue moves to anyone else. But a few more, and I might be one step closer to a mami.
For the month of December, all of Gen Burnell's Zumba classes at Fitness Options in South Burlington will be free and open to the public. (Regular rates are $12 for drop-ins and $80 for a 10-class punch card.) Classes are Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m., Thursdays at 6:15 p.m., and Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. For more information, visit www.zumbarocksvt.com or call 734-3479