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For years I tried to locate my fitness alter ego -- superbendy yogi? Amazonian warrior? cardio-machine queen? -- with no luck. I would get excited about Pilates or kickboxing for a couple of weeks, but then I would just go back to my regular identity: the girl who would rather stay home with a nice cup of tea and the newspaper crossword puzzle than sweat it out in a health club.
Then one day my friend Catherine told me about a Zumba class she was taking at a gym across town. "You really should try it; it's a class for people like us," she said. By us, Catherine meant lifelong musical theater geeks, who grew up practicing jazz hands rather than David Beckham soccer moves and who still unapologetically sing along to the power ballads on Glee every week.
From the moment I walked into that first lesson, I knew Catherine was on to something. There was a different kind of buzz in the air: People were chatting with one another and smiling -- on a Tuesday morning, at the gym! Then the door opened, and in swept the instructor, Carol, a blond force of nature with enviable dancer's calves and what seemed to be several espressos' worth of high-octane cheerleader energy. "Call me Caroleeeena!" she trilled in an exaggerated accent (turns out, she's actually from Pennsylvania) before hooking up her iPod to the sound system and swiveling her hips into a ferocious but flawlessly executed salsa.
Within minutes the entire class was grooving along behind her. I instinctively hid in the back of the room so I wouldn't get mowed down by the line of women who were flying across the floor like a sneaker-clad chorus of mismatched Rockettes. But when I looked around at the rest of the crowd, I noticed that there were plenty of other people who shuffled to the left when Carol jumped to the right or who simply bounced in place when she got to some of the more complicated swing-dance moves. Carol bellowed enthusiastically, "Do your own thing! No two people should look alike in this class!" The selling point of Zumba, it seems, is that you don't necessarily have to master each step; you just sweat and move and trick your body into thinking you're at a party rather than a fitness class.
It was a party, no doubt, but for me, the class also worked on a deeper level. I was suddenly transported back to all those studios where I had spent a large chunk of my childhood, whether learning to shuffle and tap at the Peggy O'Connor School of Dance or practicing "A Bushel and a Peck" moves for my high school production of Guys and Dolls. I was always happiest learning a new routine (this was a time before Dance Moms) and then performing it in front of an audience, preferably in a sparkly costume and glitter makeup (OK, maybe it was a little Dance Moms). Sometimes the audience filled a school auditorium; sometimes it was just a ragtag group of stuffed animals lined up in rows on my bed.
It had been years, though, since I had danced in a mirrored room with a bunch of friends, and I realized how much I'd missed it. To me, Zumba didn't feel like a painful workout, though my calves and thighs certainly ached the next day. Instead it felt as if I were at an audition that took place entirely in my head.
I could tell from the expressions on my classmates' faces that I wasn't the only one who was visiting her personal happy place. I'm pretty sure that the college student in the back of the room was being twirled around the dance floor by an invisible Ricky Martin look-alike, and the older, gray-haired man waving his hands in the air as he swayed from side to side was clearly reliving his glory days -- or, rather, nights -- of doing the hustle at Studio 54.
Pretty soon I was hooked, and within a couple of weeks I had even picked up all the moves and inched forward to join the women in the front of the class. I began to take Zumba twice a week and even to throw in the occasional abs class when I felt really inspired. Then a couple of months ago -- just when I had started to have enough of the incessant "Zumba He Zumba Ha" song -- Carol announced that our Tuesday class was being replaced by LaBlast, a workout created by the Dancing With the Stars hottie Louis van Amstel. A few weeks later Louis himself showed up to guest-teach our class. Yes, Louis van Frickin' Amstel, who choreographed some of my favorite routines on So You Think You Can Dance, taught my class. So you see how fantasies can sometimes come true?
Now, I know there are people who will scoff and say that dancing is not as intense a workout as, say, boot camp or one of those ultimate beach-body classes that my gym offers. That may be true, but it is also true that a class won't do me any good if I won't go to it.
After more than a year of swiveling my hips to the cha-cha, swing dancing to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and partying like it's 1992, my waist is slimmer, my legs are stronger, and I've acquired a whole new wardrobe of sundresses to show off my perfectly toned shoulders and arms; working with weights is much more fun to a merengue beat.
My secret identity, it turns out, is not a yogi or a warrior, but a dancing queen. And she's having the time of her life.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2012.