Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Zumba, Dance, and Flow

I've been taking Zumba classes at my gym lately. It's a workout class along the lines of Jazzercise, but with international dance steps instead of jazz-style dance steps. The focus is Latin dance (the word itself, pronounced like rhumba with a Z, connotes the buzzing of a bee in Spanish), unsurprising given that a Colombian fitness instructor developed it; more than half of the steps are Latin-dance-inspired, though India, the Middle East, Spain, and West Africa make an appearance. (It's also notable that Zumba became popular in the U.S. when it was picked up by Special K in a promotional effort targeting the growing Hispanic consumer population.)

I loved the class at first. I'm an international dance dilettante -- I've taken classes in flamenco, belly dance, Latin, Slavic folk, West African, Argentine tango, and have mastered none. My thrice-weekly runs were getting stale, so when my gym started offering Zumba classes I thought I'd give it a shot. I picked up the moves immediately -- partly because I recognized basic steps like salsa from my dance dabblings, but mostly because the steps are designed to be picked up easily by anyone who happens to wander into a class. I left class drenched in sweat, feeling endorphin-chipper; I liked catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, hips twitching to a merengue beat, belly undulating to a Middle Eastern rhythm. The dances I like the best are the ones in which I know the actual steps. I could add in the little salsa kick even though the instructor leaves it out; I can do finger placements I learned in Middle Eastern folk dance classes when we're on the ersatz belly dance song. But when the faux Hindi song comes on (a Zumbafied version of "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, chosen presumably because it's the only song most American Zumbaers would recognize as Indian), my lack of background in Hindi dance meant that I found myself essentially doing the Pony during the eight-count side-to-side. I was getting my cardiovascular fitness in, sure -- but it ended there. I don't usually look at the other dancers because I'm too in the groove, but I did then, to see what I was missing -- and saw that we were all doing the Pony. What had initially seemed like something invigorating and, hell, sassy, began to seem fraudulent.

The whole idea of Zumba is that you're supposed to be having so much fun that you forget you're also getting a workout. But the only way to forget that you're doing something is to be wholly engaged in it, in a state of flow. And flow comes only from something that can be expanded, or from being in the moment once you've mastered something that was once complicated -- once you can tinkle out a Beethoven sonata on the piano, you've stopped expanding, but the autopilot your mind and fingers enters can still tap into a space that is eluded with other sort of autopilot activities like watching a movie you've seen before. Repetition can be a part of flow, but mere repetition can't be, unless the goal is something larger (like the followers of Sri Chinmoy who run for weeks on end to complete the "Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race").

Once the novelty effect wore off, I realized that I was learning nothing. The Zumba moves, while based on dances with more organic roots, aren't exactly going to make me feel comfortable at a salsa club. (There's one point in a salsa sequence in which Zumbaers hold up their hands in a partner-dance stance, which feels ridiculous when we're all salsa-ing solo.) They're created as a workout, complete with lots of squats to strengthen quadriceps -- and as a workout that everyone can follow, which means that the ceiling for expanding your moves is uncomfortably low. There was nothing to keep me expanding, which meant that instead of reaching the state of flow that would have actually made me forget I was getting a workout, I was checking the clock and getting tired.

Rob Horning at Marginal Utility labels this "the alluring danger of dilettantism," specifically in the context of Guitar Hero. "If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play?" he writes. Commenters who were fans of the game argued that playing guitar and playing Guitar Hero were two utterly different things, which makes sense to me. (I once attended a party where some members of a rock band who were coming back from a gig decided to wind down by playing Guitar Hero.)

In the same way, Zumba is not meant to be a dance class; it's meant to be a fitness class. The classes are offered at gyms, not clubs or dance studios. But that makes it even more of a threat to authenticity than Guitar Hero, because dancing is fitness. Even with the stops and starts of a dance class for novices, even without kicking your way across the floor in a complicated combination, I -- a dance dilettante extraordinaire -- have never left a dance class in any less of a good sweat. Horning's argument about the pleasure of mastery comes into sharper relief here when you look at the Zumba steps for, say, Argentine tango (which is used as a cool-down):



...and then look at the intensity of actual Argentine tango:



These are advanced dancers, sure, but even in a beginning class you learn enough to pull off a few sultry moves. It's not so much that Zumba will never teach you the moves the latter pair are doing; it's that you miss the opportunity to imagine yourself having the kind of heat that accompanies even basic competency of the tango. Zumba instructors are trained -- mine is a pleasure to be instructed by and to watch move -- but they are not dance teachers. You might move your arms up and down with the beat, but the subtle stylings that make a dance a joy to, well, dance, are totally absent.

When I was in my flamenco stage, I took a class that consisted entirely of learning how to stamp my foot. I never shimmied across the floor; I never whirled into a staccato eruption; I didn't even do any faux toreador moves. I stood there for an hour stamping my foot over and over again while the teacher shouted instructions while squatting at my feet. By the end of that hour, I was drenched in sweat, muscles clenched and aching, convinced that my toes were now only a mash of blood and tissue. "You had perhaps six good stamps today," the instructor said. "Six?" I asked. She smiled. "Six. That's promising," she replied. I forgot the aching muscles, didn't focus on the rate of progress -- I had learned something. (It was also a helluva workout.)

But the comparison isn't exactly fair. What's fairer is looking at another dance/fitness gathering I attend, Dance Dance Party Party. The idea couldn't be simpler: A bunch of women get together in a dance studio, turn down the lights, and, for 90 minutes, do nothing but dance. There's no instructor; the only thing we follow is the rhythm. Everyone chips in a few dollars to cover the cost of renting the studio; the music is DJ'd by whoever volunteers that week, meaning that the DJ brings a CD and plops it into the boombox the coordinator brings every week. The only rules: No boys, no booze, no judgment.

The DDPP crew tends to turn up in sneakers and sport bras, just like Zumbaers (though some DDPPers prefer long skirts and bare feet -- anything goes). But after five minutes the reason for that becomes clear: We're wearing gym clothes to dance because you sweat. We sweat not because we're doing squats to a merengue beat; we sweat because we are doing our best Molly Ringwald, or vogueing, or the Pony, or just grooving in the corner. For 90 minutes, we are one big dance machine -- people leave to refill their water bottles or take a breath by the air-conditioner, but then they rejoin the mass. There's an utter lack of self-consciousness that is pleasant at first, then intoxicating: It's a dancer's high, the sheer joy of moving your body however it wants to, surrounded by people doing the same.

You can walk in without knowing a single move and leave feeling like you're a dancing queen. You get a workout without feeling like you worked out. It's fun. In other words, it's what Zumba claims to be -- but instead of being the Guitar Hero of cumbia, it's your own version of, well, whatever.

There's one way in which Zumba matches DDPP and actual dance classes -- a sense of community. Our country has few social dance outlets left for adults -- we can go to nightclubs, sure, but then we have to deal with the set of accompanying social pressures. (This is why I'd be happy to see square dancing come back into vogue. Can some hipster take this up as an ironic cause already?) While men are welcome at Zumba (though not at DDPP), I've yet to see a man take the class -- except for one, who showed up drunk and ogled the instructor's butt. When she kicked him out and the class erupted into applause, I realized that part of the appeal of Zumba was that a bunch of women got to do quasi-Latin dance both by themselves and socially, without having to either coax a male partner into going or showing up solo and hoping to find the occasional partner with no motive further than a good cha-cha. (I know there are men who like to dance with no further agenda, and that women can have dance agendas beyond a quick-step -- but I've never had a man suggest to me that we salsa the night away.) Without a traditionally structured dance society, women who like to dance outside of a club setting are sort of stuck either going to solo-oriented dance classes or chancing it at partner ones . . . or going to places like Zumba or DDPP.

I'll probably go to Zumba again -- it's free at my gym (most dance classes run $15-$25 a pop), and it's nice to shake up my running schedule with a different cardiovascular workout. But I'll look at it as just that -- a cardio workout. And in a way, I'm glad I lost my zeal for it. I'd forgotten the joy I used to take in dance classes. Something always came up to prevent me from pursuing any one dance in particular -- I moved too far away from my belly dance teacher to make it worthwhile; proper flamenco shoes were too expensive; my lower back is too inflexible to even mimic West African dance. Zumba should seem like the antidote to all those little problems -- but instead, it illuminated how trivial those problems are when the reward is authenticity.

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