On the first day of spring quarter from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., young women streamed into Ratner Athletics Center wearing bright shoes, stretch pants, and ponytails, all with water bottles in hand. Attendants at Ratner steered them away from their usual destination, the second-floor dance room telling them the previously unimaginable: Zumba had moved to the gymnasium. This move is truly incredible because it reflects the massive increased interest in this form of exercise, which combines aerobics with Latin-, Indian-, and Arabic-themed music along with booty popping, bust thrusting, and hip grinding. Before the move, students tended to arrive at least 30 minutes early in order to get a spot in the room, preferably with a good view of themselves in the many mirrors. With the move, some 110 students now participate in this close relative of Jazzercise during the evening classes, up from about 30 students per class during autumn quarter.
Students talk about Zumba as if it is a club, and, indeed, it often becomes a key fixture in their social lives. Second-years Nicola Brown, Megan Porter, Kaitlyn Bregman, and several of their friends from Burton-Judson Courts all come together. “It’s brought us closer,” said Brown. First-year Amelia Clements comes to Zumba four to five times a week and is a master Zumba networker, inviting friends and housemates. In fact, she is the one who originally convinced Brown and the other girls from Burton-Judson to try it out. All these students agreed that they love being “regulars,” knowing their spots, the songs, and the other students who attend with some regularity.
Zumba has grown in popularity along with the outsized personality of one of the Zumba instructors, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel. Gonzalez-Cadel is in many ways a cult of personality, with students asking her advice, hanging on her every word, and tweeting about her on the Internet. A 27-year-old Argentinean actress, Gonzalez-Cadel adds much drama to every class with costume changes, energetic comments, and song selection. “It’s been really rewarding to see people get healthier over the past year,” said Gonzalez-Cadel. The other Zumba instructor, 31-year-old Kimberly Rios, is a psychology professor at UChicago and originally decided to get certified as a Zumba instructor to help develop her teaching skills for the classroom. Rios is good at targeting different muscles through her routines; all the same, she does not garner the same cult status as her feisty counterpart.
It is important to explain that the story of the growing popularity of Zumba at UChicago is a highly gendered one. As many gym regulars know, the first floor is usually populated by men, while the cardio rotunda includes more women. To venture to alternate spaces often proves somewhat awkward and frightening, even to a woman like me who has enjoyed lifting and other male-oriented athletics. This division is fascinating and certainly worthy of future study, but Zumba represents an even more drastic departure from this segregation. Every evening, male students’ jaws drop as what is usually a basketball court becomes utterly unrecognizable to them. Ratner attendants lower drapes over the windows to grant privacy to the many scantily clad women, lending a private and risqué air to the space. Although there are nearly always male participants, they are vastly outnumbered by the women, perhaps on a scale of 1:20.
Indeed, Zumba is a female space in ways other than attendance demographics. Gonzalez-Cadel often speaks about having menstrual cramps, hair problems, and other women-specific issues. Third-year Peter Truong mentioned this aspect of class but said that it did not bother him. Indeed, he hopes that more men will become interested in attending. “It’s not just for old ladies,” said Truong. Interestingly, many more male students attend Gonzalez-Cadel’s course than Rios’s and are some of the main subscribers to her fan club. Perhaps the interest in Zumba speaks to female students’ desire for a female athletic space, whether they are conscious of it or not. Alternatively, it may just respond to students’ desire for fun and sex that they are not receiving in other areas of life. As a fourth-year student whose friends prefer wine and potlucks to Jungle Juice and strobe lights, I have little opportunity to really “get down” at UChicago outside of Zumba. There may be many other students who just want to dance and have fun. Zumba provides a wonderful and, just as importantly, safe outlet.
Ultimately, the women and men who attend Zumba represent many different populations of UChicago, from sorority girls to Divinity School students, from Latinas who love to dance to overweight men trying to get fit. Zumba is in many ways a great equalizer, as it is nearly impossible not to look ridiculous while clapping one’s hands and performing grapevine after grapevine. Indeed, Zumba has become a culture unto itself, with regular students asking after those who are missing and a deep devotion to the customary songs and dances. I find myself talking and tweeting about Zumba on a nearly daily basis as it gains more and more prominence in my life and schedule. Although my love of Zumba began in irony, my passion has grown to be sincere; I now count myself a true believer. Maybe I’ll see you in class on Monday—I’ll be center-right.