March it out!"
Mary Antoszewski's command rang out between songs during a Zumba Fitness workout.
The instructor led a 45-minute fitness party to Latin music in the gym at North Myrtle Beach Aquatic & Fitness Center on a late morning just days before Christmas. All 20 people in the class, of working and retirement age, including three men, smiled while rocking and rolling during and after the class. No one looked pained during their exit, either.
"Wiggle it all out!" Antoszewski said, telling participants to use all parts of the body in a faster sequence among the music selections. "Shake those arms out!"
Although the pace of Zumba might appear intense to a newcomer, this writer's body felt no aches afterward. Sure, the perspiration poured, but it proved we each went somewhere while stepping and turning around in place.
Antoszewski made a cycle of the program, starting off with a steady groove, then picking it up, slowing down a tad, accelerating again and the winding down slowly, focusing on flexing all limbs and taking long breaths.
Some participants were emphatic, reaching in, stepping forward and bending, while others stepped more gingerly and closely in their unmarked spaces. Either way, no one was off beat or out of place, or made to feel as such.
Anyone who fell out of sync just needed to look to any colleague nearby, and a few words or a quick demo helped get everybody back in the dance line.
After Antoszewski previewed one step routine in the warm-up to the next tune, she reassured everyone it would work.
"Piece of cake," said John Samuels of Little River, who, under a head of white hair, kept moving and rotating without showing much sweat beside his wife of 15 years, Jan Samuels.
"It's like dancing for us," she said.
Her husband said he also likes the easygoing atmosphere without any feel of a contest.
Before the class, Debbie Casement of Longs put her sweater and belongings on a bleacher bench. She said she first tried Zumba about a year ago, "but it feels like forever."
"I did one class, and boom, I was hooked," Casement said, liking the mix of people who turn out. "It's a good workout for an hour. You don't even know you're having such fun."
Music to move by
Deane Vinson, health and wellness director at the Claire Chapin Epps Family YMCA in Myrtle Beach, counted 19 Zumba weekly classes on the rolls, shared by seven instructors.
The Y added Zumba in September 2008 with two classes a week of Zumba Gold, geared for older adults, and has since added six other varieties. They include Aqua Zumba in a pool, Zumba Gold Chair, for individuals who need sitting intervals, and Zumba Starz, for ages 4-7 and 8-11.
"It's movement through music," Vinson said. "It's fitness for everyone. And it's fun music, music that inspires you to move. It doesn't matter if you go left or right, or forward or backward."
Zumba's celebratory atmosphere spurs smiles, Vinson said. A New Year's Day Zumba party attracted 50 people, the Y's largest to date, and a Zumba weekend dance is booked for March 11-13 "for instructors and Zumba fanatics."
Besides Zumba's flexibility for people of any age and size, she said the dancing carries a culture and "gets into your soul." It incorporates Latin, African and international beats through styles such as the merengue, salsa, reggaeton, cumbia, flamenco and samba.
"It's the pool-party atmosphere," Vinson said, "everybody just having a good time."
Linda Lesser of Longs sees Zumba as a key in preventing weight gain.
"It just melts away," she said.
Some of the women strapped sarongs with bells around their waists. They want to hear that tingling and ringing, as experienced in belly-dancing classes, to ensure that the body below the torso is not left out of the workout, especially during the shimmying and wiggling phases.
Antoszewski, who leads other fitness routines such as body sculpting, said she started doing Zumba a few years ago in her native Ohio and isn't surprised by its popularity.
"A lot of people don't realize they're actually working out," she said.
Swinging arms to the beat of the music feels differently overhead than to the side, because the latter puts biceps, triceps and torso muscles in motion, and some squats blend in with the routine as well.
"No part of the body gets left out of the workout," she said.
Pat Flynn, fitness director at the center, said in winter, especially with snowbirds' arrival, he'll see Zumba classes fill the gym, often with 80 people.
"I've never seen a fitness class take off like this," he said.
A welcoming atmosphere
Paula Kelly, an office assistant at Myrtle Beach's Crabtree Memorial Gymnasium, teaches five Zumba classes a week between the gym and the Base Recreation Center around the corner.
She finds "a sense of community and letting loose" through Zumba, as evidenced by her class members, who range from 16 to 80, and not just with women.
"A lot of men are starting to recognize the fact that this is a good way of getting a cardio workout in," Kelly, 30, said.
She called the crowds who frequent her classes an inclusive crew for any rookie.
"If I have new people, my guys are the first to welcome them," said Kelly, who likes how Zumba allows instructors to be themselves as well, hence differences in classes and places.
For people second-guessing their ability to dance, Kelly reminded them to avoid such negativity in considering Zumba.
"The most important thing is to have an open mind and enjoy yourself," said Kelly, who recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to learn to tap dance.
In teaching Zumba, Kelly said she asks everyone to simply listen to the rhythm of the music.
"You let go, like no one's watching," she said. "It's just such a joy to watch people open up, from being extremely hesitant, to totally embracing it."
Exercisewise, Kelly said finding an activity "that keeps people coming back and excited" matters the most, and Zumba punches that ticket for many individuals.
Participants learn new choreography, she said, "but it's basic steps" and creativity and coordination of movement and mind.
"You help your brain at the same time as the rest of your body," Kelly said.
She also likes the lack of peer pressure, for Zumba does not entail judging or grades, but is simple fun and an escape from everyday rigors.
"There's no such thing as perfect," she said. "It's OK to make mistakes and look goofy."