This past January, three intrepid Gawker employees traveled to around the corner from their office to try out New York's bougie new fitness craze: SoulCycle. What the experience lacked in comfort, it made up for in terror and also seeing Chelsea Clinton. Emboldened, last night two of them (the third is on a cruise eating hot dogs from a buffet), accepted an invitation to tackle a new fitness fad, this one favored by women of a certain age: Zumba.
Rich Juzwiak and I went to a Zumba dance party hosted by Lil Jon at a nightclub.
For the unZumbified, Zumba Fitness® bills itself as a "fitness dance party" that combines Latin dance steps with fitness. (The fitness part manifests itself as a lot of arm reaches and jumping.) It is billed as appropriate for "all ages," and, therefore, skews a little old. The instructors we talked to placed the average participant in her 30s or 40s. They also spoke reverently of a student in her 80s. The instructors don't speak; they dance and you copy.
Lil Jon does not DJ every Zumba class, though perhaps he would like to. (He told a reporter for LA Weekly he got involved with Zumba because it allows women to "have a good time and lose weight.") He's touring the country as part of Zumba's "Nightclub Series," DJing at events led by instructor Gina Grant, a celebrity within the Zumbamunity.
Last night's exercise bacchanal was held at the Amazura club in Jamaica, Queens. Regular customers paid $35 apiece to get in; Rich and I went for free, as guests of a New York City Zumba instructor named Irena Meletiou, who was very kind to us even though Rich danced like a brick. Because we were her guests, we got to travel to Queens on a giant, rattling party bus which made the outing feel like a field trip to a strip club.
I am a dance class veteran but also an aerobiphobe. Rich works out regularly but had no prior dance experience. Our impressions are in the informal chat below.
Caity: Lil Jon was like an affable Bar Mitzvah DJ guiding our Zumba experience through a rigid, pre-determined playlist.
Rich: I LOVE that he acknowledged the overwhelming female majority by only hyping the "ladies."
Caity: Yes, "WORK IT, LADIES!" "SHOW US WHAT CHA GOT, LADIES." I started to wonder if he even knew there were men in attendance. He acknowledged them only once, when some male Zumba instructors came out to lead us in a dance.
Rich: And was like, "What are YOU doing?" Since inevitably, Zumba forced them to dance like female strippers. And shake they cakes.
Caity: That is 100 percent the Lil Jon soundbite I will remember: "What are YOU doing?"
Caity: How did you feel going into something so lady-centric?
Rich: Going into it, fine. I love women.
Caity: You sound like Lil Jon.
Rich: I am pretty well in touch with my feminine side. BUT, once there, I was not OK with doing some of the things we were asked to do.
Such as shake my tits.
And drop it like it's hot.
Mostly shaking my tits. I will seriously never do that.
Caity: I also felt uncomfortable shaking my tits because mine are very small so I look about the same as you would doing it.
Rich: I'm not nearly as wiggly as Zumba demands one to be. Like, I'm not that wiggly as a person.
Caity: Zumba is dance class for noodles. I will say, it was very nice to participate in a fitness-based activity and feel competent, or even good, because normally I'm blatantly the worst in class.
Rich: I had the exact opposite experience, but I was very impressed by your moves. You are definitely more Latin in them. And very capable on your feet. Uninhibited. Eager to learn. Zumba slut. I mean that in admiration.
Caity: You reminded me of, like, a basketball player on Dancing with the Stars. Obviously in very good shape but with a little trouble doing complicated criss-cross foot switch hip swivel things. Or maybe a camp counselor at a girls' summer camp. "Alright, ladies, what's the dance?"
Rich: That seems accurate. The only moves I truly connected with were the hip-hop ones. Like, I could pick up on them a lot better and they felt right and aggressive
Caity: This was almost identical to my normal workout routine, which consists of just copying Beyonce YouTube videos for 30 minutes. (But this was 90 minutes.)
Rich: I liked the opportunity to be lascivious in a safe space, since so much of these movements require squatting and gyrating your hips.I couldn't keep my nasty, darting tongue in my mouth. When you're down like that, grinding, how can you not lick the air?
Caity: I actually felt a little silly doing all that, because we were in a club (da club) full of hundreds of women, many middle aged or older, in bright neon clothes, dancing like the Pussycat Dolls.
Rich: Older ladies in neon need love too. I felt silly doing everything.
Caity: They got it, from Lil Jon. The environment was definitely absurd, but not in the frightening way SoulCycle was. Zumba was much more happy-go-lucky.
Rich: Well, it's more like, "You can't do it? So what! Just mince and sway!" Egalitarian.
Rich: Given that it is taught with nonverbal cues, it is bound to be that way. It's like, "Just make it up who cares! C'est la vie! Viva la Zumba!"
Caity: YES, I would like to talk about her for hours and also marry her.
Rich: Oh boy, what a knockout. We should say that she was onstage in this club, leading us.
Caity: WHOA, I JUST GOOGLED HER AND SHE HAS FOUR KIDS. She's 36!
Caity: Holy hell.
Rich: She's a superstar. A bit Gloria Estefan-esque.
Caity: Gorgeous face, the prettiest smile, the biggest, curliest hair.
Rich: She is like one of those fake pop stars that you'd see on TV shows in movies of the '80s. She's like Shana from Teen Witch.
Caity: And she kept doing a little "bit" where she would shake her boobs and then look down fake-concerned like her boobs were popping out of her deep-V sports bra. (They never were.) She did it like 4 times and every time it was like "Oh, Gina! :)"
Pop needs a Gina.
Pop needs GINA.
Caity: The world needs GINA.
Rich: Va-va-va-voom va-va-va-Gina
Caity: We should also mention that right before we started dancing, we saw who I presumed to be large gay man wearing a tank top that read, in silver sequins: "I LOVE GINA"
Rich: Yes. And I laughed at him in my head. And then I got it.
Rich: Gina is the most beautiful person that ever existed. She would add flourishes, such as:
* extra boob shakes
* hip sways
And I wondered if we should replicate them. I decided we didn't have to for the sake of maintaining the sexuality/agility hierarchy that Gina stands atop.
Caity: Agreed, she was occasionally a little hard to follow. But I didn't want her to tone it down, because she was just being Gina. And any time you got lost in her footwork, you could just bop in place because Zumba has no rules.
Rich: Since she never talked, she was like a mime. The spiciest mime.
Caity: Also, a lot of her steps were just a grapevine on hyper speed, so not that hard but they looked great.
My favorite moment was when she wanted us to do some kind of core-strengthening move, and she demonstrated, then pointed at us and did a wacky hip swiveling version (like what we apes were doing), and brought her finger to her face and waggled it "No."
Rich: Yes! She was mocking us with affection. I am happy to say that I was not doing the wacky hip swivel; I actually got that move. It wasn't always like that. If you'll recall, I left the dance floor immediately.
Caity: I would say within three seconds, you said "I can't do this," and vamoosed. ZUMBA DRAMA.
Zumba Cult Jargon That You Don't Really Need to Know But Everyone Throws It Around Like You Should
ZIN (Zumba Instructors Network) - Network of instructors who, for a fee, receive marketing materials, music, choreography instructions, discounted Zumba gear, and a million, billion other Zumba-branded things
ZES (Zumba Educational Specialist) - a Zumba instructor selected by the head office who trains and licenses future Zumba instructors in their city or territory
Jammer - a Zumba instructor selected by the head Zumba office who holds choreography sessions to give instructors in the ZIN network choreography ideas for their classes
Rich: And then our host, Irena, implored me to return. She really helped me believe in myself. She told me, "Don't worry about being perfect." And I really do always worry about being perfect. So finally, I was just like, "fuck it." It looks more complicated than it is, like you were saying.
Caity: I don't think we met a person at Zumba who was not endlessly upbeat and positive. And at first I was like "Yeah okay..." but then I was like "YEAH!!! OKAY!!!"
Rich: People were feeling the fuck out of it. That is what impressed me the most. Because it's basically concert meets club meets church. It's so cheesy to admit but the club full of bodies moving in unison was awe-inspiring.
Caity: I really felt like we were bowing to the false (or maybe True?) god of Gina. I found some moments sort of unsettling and hive-ish BUT I still had a blast.
Rich: Oh, it's a total cult. But a fun cult!
Caity: This Kool-Aid tastes GREAT.
The cheesiness was certainly bolstered by everyone's Zumba gear, which looked like sexy clown costumes. As soon as we arrived, I saw a woman who had to be in at least her late 50s waiting in line for the bathroom. She was rocking a neon green off-the-shoulder t-shirt and silver glitter eye shadow.
Also, some people had modified their tops (or maybe they're just sold like that?) to the point that they no longer looked work-out practical.
Rich: For those who missed the chance to be club kids, there is Zumba.
Rich: What about the Soul Train line that Gina formed? She parted the crowd like the Red Sea.
Caity: I must say, although I—as always—appreciated Gina's radiant energy, I didn't love that part because I really wanted to be working out.
Rich: There was an elderly woman that jumped in and, you know, was cute. But you're right; I didn't get what we were supposed to be doing. Our own freestyle? Or just moving our legs in a shuffle to the beat? Or what Gina was doing?
Caity: Gina was breakdancing on the floor.
Rich: I wonder what Gina is doing now and whether I should be doing that too.
Caity: I bet she's having a small smoothie and a light salad for lunch
Rich: So I SHOULD be doing what Gina is doing then.
Caity: I think I'm gonna have a milkshake but I'll sip it like a smoothie.
Rich: I have leftover Indian food and summer is coming :(
Caity: That's the other thing I noticed: the instructors, of course, were all in impeccable shape, but most people in the crowd were average to overweight. The opposite of SoulCycle. Do you think this is viable as someone's only workout plan?
Rich: It couldn't be mine.
Caity: Your arm muscles would atrophy.
Rich: I did sweat but it didn't kick my ass. Part of the problem was not being able to do everything. Or most things.
Caity: Oh, how did you like the Bollywood Breakdown?
Rich: I was so bad at that. In general, I thought the music was a lot of fun, though. And I REALLY loved how so many of the moves required motions for each of the four beats in a measure, so you could intuitively grasp them.
Caity: Yes, this was definitely designed for the average person to pick up fairly easily. I can't imagine a less intimidating form of group exercise.
Rich: Yeah. And also, I'm not coordinated, so I was scared of hurting people. As much of this involved flailing.
Caity: I thought it unwise to have us do high kicks. And there was a lot of spinning, which looks great when Gina does it, but just bumbling when we copy.
Rich: So much spinning. Like something out of Goddess in Showgirls. Gina IS Goddess.
Caity: Gina Gershon.
Rich: I have two more things I want to mention:
1) The confetti
A nice add-on to any workout. We had about ... four blasts?
Caity: Yes! I was so disappointed there wasn't more confetti.
Rich: There was more confetti than your average workout, and for that I was grateful.
Caity: Confetti makes you feel like you're doing something right, even if you're not.
Rich: 2) I loved that we stretched to Miguel's "Adorn." Because you never hear a slow jam on a club's sound system. Or at least, you don't at the kinds of clubs I go to. And it was like being inside of that lovely, clinking, vibrating song. Gina's love adorned all of us.
Caity: So, final thoughts?
Rich: I would do it again. But I would probably want to work out after.
Caity: I would absolutely do Zumba again, but it might be nice to have a class with all young people, so I'd feel less dorky.
Caity: I rate the experience 9 out of 10 Gina's. I rate Gina 12 out of 10 Gina's.
[Art by Jim Cooke // Image via AP]