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Contributed by Dena Evans

Originally appeared on rokovoko.com


They sweat, they swivel their hips, they laugh, they burn calories, they learn. A room full of women moves together in unison, the perspiration first beading, then dripping as they try to keep up with their energetic and encouraging instructor, exercising to the thumping beats of dance music. A familiar and common scene in American suburbia and in the image-conscious urban areas of Manhattan and Los Angeles, yes. But this particular group can be found Saturday mornings in a room of the East San Jose school district administration office, a wallet-worn hole (minus the wallet) in the swelling pocket of prosperity that has contained the Silicon Valley Internet boom.


The 1999 Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health reported that more than 60 percent of adult women do not do the recommended amount of physical activity daily. In addition, more than 25 percent of women are not active at all, another of the long list of statistics offered in recent years that indicate an American female population headed straight toward rampant obesity. More affluent middle-aged women are taking advantage of the proliferating yoga studios and fitness clubs, and running, walking, cycling, and multi-sport endurance events. However, there are far fewer vibrant and appealing fitness opportunities for women who have no ample leisure time and discretionary funds.


Women with a quick finger on their computer mouse, a spare $50 or $75 for entry, or the time and wherewithal to raise several hundred dollars for charity, can sign up to run events like the Nike Women’ s Marathon/Half-Marathon. Featuring almost 20,000 women, the fourth annual edition sold out its 2007 half-marathon spots in ten hours and its marathon spots in three days. Curves, a chain of franchised fitness centers marketed specifically to middle-aged and senior women too intimidated to join traditional clubs such as 24 Hour Fitness or Bally’s, offers thirty-minute circuit programs (with machines that “ fit women of all sizes”), for a start-up fee of $50 to $80 and monthly charges ranging from $29 to $59. From its Waco, Texas roots in 1995, Curves has enjoyed Starbucks-esque growth, now serving 4 million women in 10,000 locations. At one point recently, a new Curves opened every four hours.


But despite the close physical proximity to that type of opportunity—the Nike Women’s Marathon took place just down the road in San Francisco, and there are more than 75 Curves locations within thirty miles of San Jose—the group of women in East San Jose might as well be a million miles away. For women in the Mayfair neighborhood of East San Jose, the financial resources to take part in these types of activities are difficult to come by. Almost exclusively comprised of Spanish-speaking families—some newly arrived immigrants, some with roots back as far as the 1920’s—it’ s an area so tough it has been informally referred to as “Sal Si Puedes” (Get Out if You Can) throughout its tumultuous history of community unrest.


But now, at least, it offers Zumba.


Zumba is a Latin-inspired aerobics workout program that came about essentially by accident. Alberto “Beto” Perez, a fitness trainer in Colombia, forgot his aerobics class soundtrack one day in the mid-1990’s and had to improvise using his personal music from his car. Soon, students were clamoring for the “new class” and, with entrepreneurs Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion, he took his show on the road. First, an infomercial spread the word, followed by the creation of a systematic training program to equip new instructors.


Recently featured in dozens of magazines and newspapers, Zumba’s Web site claims the current participation of over 3,000,000 people and was touted as “one of the nation’ s fastest growing fitness crazes” on the Today show this fall. In the words of the company, “Music is Zumba’s special motivational ingredient, bringing together salsa, merengue, samba, reggaeton, African beats, cumbia, and even funk. With specific beats and tempo changes, the exclusive Zumba score transitions the workout seamlessly from one toning, strengthening, or cardio move to another. Even if you feel like you have two left feet, all you have to do is let yourself naturally move to the beat. The workout starts with one simple step and then moves up the body—first the feet, then the mid-section, and finally, the upper body—until everything is in motion.”


In other words, just dance your butt off. Literally.


Part 1  |  (Part 2)


By Dena Evans

Photo of Zumba instructor Susan Armenta, Courtesy of BAWSI

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