Zumba Dances on Stage

A recent addition to the class schedule at The Workout gym gets an annual staging at the Built on Stilts dance festival.

You do not have to be a little girl to enjoy dance class. Oak Bluffs resident Janet Holladay is in her fifties and attends more than five classes a week. Always spotted wearing a smile and a skirt, she dances her way through the week with ballroom dancing, swing dancing, and Zumba. And thanks in part to Janet, the new exercise phenomenon of Zumba has become a vehicle for all ages on-Island to show off their moves for family, friends, and strangers.

Zumba reinvents the rules of a fitness class, fusing international rhythms and dance steps – primarily Latin and including salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton, and cha-cha, as well as hip-hop – in an aerobics setting. Zumba got its start in the mid-1990s when Colombian fitness instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez forgot the music for his aerobics class. As a quick fix, he brought in tapes of Latin music from his car and improvised his customary aerobics routine. The result was an immediate hit, turning into a new class and quickly becoming the most popular at the gym.

By the year 2000, Perez had moved from Colombia to Miami and took his dancing aerobics with him. Since then Zumba has spread across the United States and beyond. The name takes inspiration from three words: the Spanish word zumbas, meaning “to buzz like a bee, or move fast,” and the Portuguese word samba and Latin word rumba, both meaning “party,” and all fitting with the Zumba motto “Join the party.”

The Island joined the Zumba party in 2007 when Connie McHugh, the owner of The Workout in Edgartown, suggested Oak Bluffs resident and fitness instructor Kris Martin try it out. With the company of a few other gym members, Kris took the boat over to Falmouth to take a class. They all loved it, and from there, the Island’s Zumba craze took off.

Today Kris teaches four Zumba classes per week, and in the summer season, her classes are more likely than not to fill up – even at seven in the morning. Kris estimates she has fifteen to twenty year-round regulars; with space for only twenty-eight, when the increase in summer happens, people arrive as early as an hour before class to make sure they get in. “The thing with Zumba is that it is meant to be a party atmosphere,” Kris explains, describing the feel as “less like a class and more like they’re out at a club.”

Of Kris’s devoted followers, Janet Holladay was one of the people that accompanied Kris to Falmouth. She has been involved in Zumba “from the very first day.” Janet attends class an average of three times a week, saying it is a blast. Janet has been a dancer all her life, beginning with tap when she was six. She says, “Dancers often look down on aerobics classes,” explaining that dance is about interacting with the music. Zumba is different. Janet says, “It is closer to dance than calisthenics – there is more depth to it.”

Because of Janet’s enthusiasm for dancing, Zumba went public in 2007 by joining the Built on Stilts dance festival, which is held in Oak Bluffs in August. “I like to get across the idea that dancing is fun and anyone can do it,” says Janet, who has been performing in the festival for the past five years, first with a ballroom piece and more recently with Zumba. Kris admits that she was hesitant at first – August is a crazy month – but Janet kept pushing. “It just kind of snowballed, and before we knew it, we had over twenty people interested in doing it,” Kris says.

For Zumba’s first year with Built on Stilts, most rehearsals were run as part of the regular classes. The performance routine was integrated into class numbers, with only a few separate rehearsals as the August festival drew near. More than twenty dancers spanning ages nine to seventy, and including four mother-daughter pairs, participated in Zumba’s debut and performed two nights during the eight-night festival. “It ended up being so much fun and incredibly bonding,” Kris says. The rehearsals and performances allowed the workout-related acquaintances to meet outside of class to prepare beforehand – and celebrate afterward.

With the 2007 performances so successful, Zumba returned to Built on Stilts in 2008. A mix of newcomers and returnees, the eighteen women who took the stage in the 2008 festival performed one night, but that hardly affected the enthusiasm among the performers or the spectators. Kris had Zumba-goers joining the performance group all the way up until the week before the festival. In the end, performing once saved a lot of time, but Kris suspected they were all a bit disappointed. “They totally wanted to do it again,” she says with a laugh. And in 2009, it looks like they will have the chance – “99 percent,” according to Kris.

For Kris, the best part of performing is the effect on her students: “The high that they walked away with was so cool to see. You never really get to have that adrenaline at our age.”