For someone who can dance only when there’s no one watching, signing up for a 14-day Zumba dance fitness challenge was a momentous decision, because my anxiety at having to jig with a big group of strangers, even if it was all women, was already reaching its peak.
When Chelsea Gregory, the director and co-founder of DanceFit in Dubai, called to confirm my attendance, the first question I asked was: “Does this mean I have to ace all the dance moves? Because I must make it clear that I am a bad dancer.”
Gregory assured me that it wasn’t really about mastering a dance form. “It is going to be more like a fitness party,” she said. “Do not worry. No dancing skills required.”
She was right. Zumba is a cardio workout artfully packaged as fast-paced dance that helps tone the entire body. The Colombian-born celebrity fitness instructor and professional dancer Alberto Perez came up with the workout by chance in the 1990s when he forgot to get the music for one of his fitness classes. He improvised and used some Latin music tapes to get his small group of students on their feet. The result was a mash-up of hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, mambo and merengue rhythms in an exercise session. Today Zumba Fitness (www.zumba.com) is a branded programme with more than 14 million people from 185 countries around the world shaking a leg to it.
A day before my 14-day challenge, I received an orientation pack with health tips and recipes to sustain me through the gruelling session. We were asked to wear comfortable gym clothes with trainers and not to miss out on the warm-up and cool-down minutes to prevent injuries. We were told that stocking up on water was essential because we would be sweating profusely and therefore would require constant replenishment before and during the class to stay hydrated. Of course, every exercise has to be combined with good eating habits and I had to get used to eating on time and snacking on foods such as yogurt and nuts 30 minutes before each session.
Nearly 100 women turned up for the dance party on the first evening at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where a club was rented because of the large number of participants. But the numbers dropped on the second day.
Monica Pulgarin, the lead instructor for the DanceFit challenge, says the routines for the 14 days were created to include exercises of varying intensity.
“We raise the heart rate with cardio and then drop it with toning,” she says. This helps burn more calories, compared with a steady exercise such as walking or jogging. And doing squats forces a continuous hip and midsection movement, thereby strengthening the core and improving flexibility.
Pulgarin and three other instructors paired high-energy movements with the latest numbers from Lil Jon, Pitbull, The Black Eyed Peas and Jennifer Lopez.
“There are two ways to do it,” Pulgarin tells me before a class. “The easy way and the hard way. You can sway to the tunes without putting in much effort, but you will not benefit much – it’s the easy way. But if you do it well, you can burn up to 800 calories in an hour, which is a lot.”
Determined to do it well, I picked a spot on the dance floor that would give me enough space to vigorously kick and swing my arms without taking anyone’s eye out, and let myself loose.
An hour into the session on day one, I noticed my energy level dip – dancing with two-kilogram weights seemed tedious. But the enthusiasm around the hall was contagious and I was excited to head back the next day despite the body ache.
Next came the core moves, which involved jumping, pumping and basic Latin dance legwork – not difficult to follow. Missteps were immediately forgiven.
“It has been proven that dancing is good to relieve stress,” says Pulgarin. “And it is excellent to tone your body. It is a great fusion of Latin rhythms and exercise.”
She adds that it is enticing for both fitness freaks and those who aren’t motivated to get into shape. “Many people who start a fitness regime get bored. With Zumba, that motivation stays because there is always a new song coming up and you can create different routines around them.”
Two weeks weren’t enough to see a drop in weight goals, but that was not the intention to begin with. At the end of the challenge, I was more energetic and saw an improvement in rhythm and coordination. Best of all, I can sign up for a group class now without batting an eyelid.
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• DanceFit is a women-only studio that teaches Zumba Gold for beginners, Zumba Cardio for high-intensity workouts and Zumba Toning for weight training, plus other dance forms. Visit www.dancefitme.com for more details