Shake It Out: What Zumba Taught Me About Tackling Fitness Standards and Loving My Body

Image by Edson Hong
Image by Edson Hong

By Amber Ikeman, Intern 2014

I used to hate dancing.

Well, it wasn’t so much that I hated it – I thought I was terrible at it. I took dance classes all throughout high school as part of my specialized performing arts program. Four years of ballet, jazz, tap, and modern, and most days I left class crying or feeling extremely frustrated. I was never good enough. I convinced myself that my body was never going to be tiny or flexible enough to float through the air doing jetes. I couldn’t get the technique down, and I thought it was because there was something innately wrong with my body. I had a hard time enjoying myself because I was so critical and competitive.

And then I found Zumba.

I had just gotten back from living abroad for 6 months, moved back in with my parents, was unemployed and in the thick of a complicated struggle with food, exercise, and the way I felt about my body. I wanted to feel good about what I saw in the mirror but still, that critical voice in my head kept telling me that no matter what, it would never be good enough.

I started checking out Zumba, a program that uses Latin and world music and dance as the basis for a cardio-toning-flexibility experience. The first time I went, I still had some of those same thoughts I used to have about dancing. “Why can’t I move my hips like that? What’s wrong with me?” I felt really awkward, especially being a white Jewish girl trying to do hip hop and Latin moves. Then one day in class, at just the right moment, the instructor shouted, “Just shake it all out!!!”

Whoa. Hello, hips.

I realized then that I didn’t have to look or move like anyone else. It was about having fun and feeling good, not about trying to impress or attract anyone, or getting it “right.” It became a way for me to express myself through my body. What I spent so much time and energy hating started to become the very tool that helped me turn around. And I felt sexy! Not because anyone else made me feel that way – because I allowed myself to feel liberated and confident about the body I had and the ways it moved.

After about a year of regular Zumba-going, I decided I wanted to take this hobby to the next level. I went to a 9-hour Zumba instructor course and got certified to teach. I heard that the gym I belonged to was looking for a new instructor, so I interviewed and got a position teaching once a week. My goal was, and still is, to inspire others to feel good about their bodies in a safe, healthy, and happy way. As an advocate for positive body image, however, I have encountered some challenges throughout this process.

One thing I’ve grappled with as a certified Zumba instructor or a “Zumbist,” as one of my friends affectionately calls me, is that Zumba Fitness LLC sends as a business driven towards growth and profit, and therefore sometimes sends messages that aren’t always healthy for our minds. Zumba Fitness knows that weight loss marketing sells – for about $61 billion.. I take issue with some of their taglines, like “shake, shake, shrink,” which, to me, is not what Zumba or fitness should be about. Other marketing sheds more positive light, such as their “elevator pitch” about Zumba classes:

Are you ready to party yourself into shape? Forget the workout, just lose yourself in the music and find yourself in shape at the original dance-fitness party. Zumba® classes feature exotic rhythms set to high-energy Latin and international beats. Before you know it, you’ll be getting fit and your energy levels will be soaring! It’s easy to do, effective and totally exhilarating.

Weight loss and fitness are two different things, yet in mainstream marketing heavily influenced by the diet industry, they tend to be presented as the same, especially if they both result in the societal ideal body. Health at Every Size talks about “finding joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.” This is a great way to think about exercise: it takes the emphasis off of how physical activity might affect one’s appearance. ”Getting into shape” doesn’t have to mean, “getting into the shape that society thinks you should be.” It can mean an increase in energy and improved physical wellness, which Zumba also promotes. They focus on marketing their fitness experience as a “party,” not a “workout” or strictly a weight-loss program. One example of this is their 2014 New Years campaign: “#indulgein2014: Crash parties, not diets.”

Though Zumba’s weight-loss emphases have the potential to encourage negative body image or behaviors, the company does present a variety of sizes, races, ethnicities, genders, and skill levels in its marketing material. Though most align with the standard idea of what a “fit” person looks like, they are not all “skinny” as the mainstream media would define it, and none that I’ve seen look unrealistic. The instructors – those at the forefront – do tend to be smaller and more “conventionally” beautiful; as such a large, mainstream company, Zumba does conform to certain norms.

One of Zumba’s revenue streams is their clothing line, which also raises some interesting points about body image. Like most brands of apparel, their marketing focuses on physical appearance rather than fitness, which is what sells. Yet, Zumba presents some wonderfully body-positive language in their website’s recently updated measurement chart, which now includes clothing up to size 24:


Fortunately, I have a great deal of flexibility to personalize my Zumba sessions to align with my values, and one of the ways I do that is through the songs I choreograph. I strive to include only songs that are positive and energizing and avoid songs that objectify women or that might make them feel like they are “performing” for the benefit of men. We’re already inundated with music like this on the radio, TV, and in stores. Part of influencing body positivity is challenging cultural norms, demonstrating that it’s okay not to engage in them. I want my students to know that they don’t have to be “like Miley Cyrus, clothes off, twerking in their bras and thongs, face down, booty up,” (Pitbull, “Timber”) to feel sexy or desirable. It’s not a nightclub. It’s a safe place to let yourself go and embrace your hips, your belly, your breasts, no matter their size or shape. For those looking for sexual freedom, this can be a much more positive way to experience it rather than seeking validation from somewhere else. Zumba commissions original music that is almost always positive and fun, centered around the dances they are paired with. There are songs all about how awesome it is to dance salsa, along with happy shouts of the word “Zumba!” These are the kinds of songs I choose. For an hour, we can “lose ourselves in the music,” and find our truer selves. We can forget about how we are “supposed” to move and just experience what is.

Every instructor has different goals and relationships with Zumba LLC; for me and many others, Zumba is about and feeling good about our bodies as they are rather than about altering them to fit in (pun intended). Students can shake and twist and roll as much or as little as they are comfortable with, and I always hope that if they are comfortable enough to give it their all, they feel confidence, pride, and love for their bodies. Even when men come to class – I have one man who comes every single week – I have always felt that there was a sense of respect. Most of the time, people aren’t looking around and judging; they’re focusing on themselves and having a good time. I begin every class by saying that Zumba is all about having fun. There are no right or wrong steps. Listen to your body and modify if you need to. You’ll get out of it what you put in, and it will be what you make it.

Though there is still some room for Zumba as a company to grow more towards body positivity, everyone has a chance to make it their own. I realize that it’s not for everyone; this type of movement can come more naturally to some than others, and yes, it can be difficult to get past “your own worst critic.” It can mean something different to everyone – that’s why it’s become a phenomenon in 185 countries. Actress Kathy Najimy, the keynote speaker for Zumba’s instructor convention in December 2012, noted that Zumba is accessible to “women and men of all shapes…Diverse people of all colors. Lots of gays. Lots of straights. Single people. Married people. All dancing together.” There is Zumba for kids, Zumba for seniors, aqua Zumba, and many other variations, each an opportunity to let that critical voice go, shake your insecurities out, and just feel your body in the music.

I am very thankful to have found a way to use Zumba as an outlet as well as to heal and inspire. Despite the fact that as a company, it is still a fitness program aimed towards weight loss and fitness standards, what I have gotten out of it has transcended ideals of fitness and shape and has allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin. I believe that many others can and have achieved this too.

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