I came to Zumba by accident, at a time when I was in doubt that my body possessed any hint of rhythm or grace. I was signing up for gym membership at my university’s Rec Centre on the day of my first unplanned Zumba class, having been told by the guy at the front desk that I’d have to purchase membership before I could attend any of the yoga classes they offered. “But you can take any class that’s offered here,” he told me, as he pointed at a class schedule. “There’s no more yoga for today, but a Zumba class is about to begin.”
My father had told me that yoga would help me calm my nerves and recover from my trauma after I’d been hit by a car while crossing the street a month before. I had only been in New Zealand as an international student for a few months when it happened, and while my body had only sustained minor injuries, I remained emotionally traumatised. I was capable of walking, but I was easy to frighten, and the accident left me barely able to trust my body as it moved within the world. I knew that much of my trauma resided inside my head, and that I would have to get outside of it for me to heal.
I never initially thought of Zumba as a means of healing, and it didn’t help that the PE dance classes I had taken as a kid in the Philippines made me think that I was graceless, unmusical, and incapable of following instructions. But I was also a penny-pinching PhD student who was determined to get my money’s worth for the gym membership I had just purchased, which made me willing to try this class, even if it meant making a fool of myself.
I never initially thought of Zumba as a means of healing, and it didn’t help that the PE dance classes I had taken as a kid in the Philippines made me think that I was graceless, unmusical, and incapable of following instructions.
I positioned myself at the very rear as a woman in running shorts, hoodie, and hi-cut sneakers was pulling her gorgeous, flowing blonde hair into a ponytail before she plugged her phone into the studio’s speakers, and walked to the centre of the stage. She instructed us to mirror her as she walked to the left, and to the right, of the stage, reassuring us that it didn’t matter if we made mistakes, as long as we had fun. As the first song blasted through the half-empty dance studio, she placed her hands on her waist, and started swaying her hips to the music.
I remember standing behind a tall man in jogging pants, hoping that no one would see me as our teacher guided us through the moves of every song. She crossed her legs, punched the air, and allowed the music to ripple through her body, without missing a single beat, as her back and hips rolled. I was ashamed of my own awkwardness as I fixed my eyes on the man in front of me, following his every move. Like her, he moved by instinct, without holding back.
Our bodies slowed into a cool-off routine, and then the music ended. “See you on Tuesday,” our teacher said, sweaty and beaming. It was an invitation that was hard for me to say no to, for the class had awakened a curiosity in my body that was difficult for me to ignore.
I learned the next Tuesday that her name was Carolina, and that she usually team-taught Zumba classes with her friend Maddy, whose dance style leaned towards hip-hop while Carolina preferred a more Latin vibe. On stage, they melded each other’s dance styles, leading our bodies into the music as they thrust their hips, rolled their bodies, shook out their shoulders, pushed their hands and knees into the air, and created intricate patterns the floor with their feet. I envied their grace and athleticism, and found it was easier for me to follow them if I positioned myself closer to the stage. Their classes were packed during the regular semester, and I started coming earlier, grabbing a good spot that would give me a better view of the stage.
Despite the pain I continued to have in my knee as a result of the accident, I found that my body possessed its own sense of rhythm, and I began to let go, trusting my body’s capacity for movement as I channelled Carolina and Maddy’s energies on stage.
Much of the healing process involves regaining one’s trust in the world, and at Zumba class, I felt loved and cared for as I merged myself with this crowd who shimmied and leaped to the music.
Much of the healing process involves regaining one’s trust in the world, and at Zumba class, I felt loved and cared for as I merged myself with this crowd who shimmied and leaped to the music. I was no longer in harm’s way, and despite my weakened knee, my body hadn’t lost the grace it had possessed all along. There was joy in discovering the music my body could create without my mind’s interference. Slowly, I let go of the trauma my mind housed, realising that my body was freer the more I let go of this pain.
Zumba taught me that my body could give me joy, and I carried this lesson with me as I became more adventurous with my dancing, studying salsa, lindy hop, then tango, which I fell in love with because of its emphasis on connection and trust. Zumba gave me the hope I needed to survive my trauma, and thanks to Carolina and Maddy, I learned to channel my body’s energies to savour life’s music.