Rafu Staff Writer

When I started working at the Rafu, I never expected that I’d spend my Friday evenings with my coworkers, shaking our butts to a Latin beat in the basement of a Buddhist temple. But, almost three months into my job, these moments have become some of the highlights of my week.

I’d only been on the staff for a couple weeks when Gwen Muranaka, our English editor-in-chief, told me about the weekly Zumba classes at Higashi Honganji. They’d been going on for a while, she said, and she’d wanted to try going, but hadn’t had the chance.

Meanwhile, a year and a half into the transition from college (where I spent much of my day walking in the fresh Vermont air) to an office setting (where I spend eight hours curled, shrimp-like, over a computer while eating hot Cheetos), I knew I needed to change something. So, one Friday night, Gwen and I ventured down to the temple basement for our first class.

Zumba instructor Nelly Martin leads the Friday group at Higashi Honganji with her buoyant energy. (Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Though Zumba launched in the U.S. in 2001, I’d never heard of it until my last year of college, when my friend Rosie, visiting from California for spring break, showed my roommates and me a video on YouTube and led us in shaking and salsa-stepping across our concrete dorm floor.

My roommates and I had been taking a yoga class together for most of college, but I loved Zumba precisely for all its differences from the calmer, more meditative exercise: I loved its loudness, its energy… even the brightly colored cut-off tops and cargo capris of its flamboyant instructors.

A mix of Latin dance and aerobics, Zumba began serendipitously in mid-‘90s Colombia when aerobics instructor Alberto Perez forgot to bring his traditional aerobics music to class one day and had to make do with whatever tapes he had with him. When he realized how well aerobics could fit with salsa and cumbia, inspiration struck. A few years later, Perez brought his blend of dance-fitness to Miami and, with two other partners (both coincidentally also named Alberto), launched the Zumba Fitness brand. According to the company’s website, over 12 million people now participate in Zumba classes in more than 125 countries.

Our class at Higashi is responsible for about 30 of those people, on a good week. Together, we make up a pretty diverse group: I’m one of the younger ones, but usually we span a good five, even six decades; several of the regulars aren’t Japanese American; and at least one man comes weekly. We vary in energy level too, but the one constant, if you look across the room, is that it’s difficult to catch someone not smiling. Or sweating. We’re a smiley, sweaty bunch.

"How can I learn to shake it like that?" students ask of Nelly.

A search for the biggest smile in the room will always lead to Nelly Martin, our instructor, whose boundless energy makes us all aspire to work harder, move faster, and feel the rhythm farther in our bones, in the hopes of being able to look just a little more like her when we dance. At the end of my first day, a woman in her 40s who I’d just met pulled me over conspiratorially and, nodding at Nelly, said, “How can I learn to shake it like that?” (“That’s what everybody says!” Nelly laughs when I tell her later.)

During that first class, Gwen and I were more worried about keeping up at all, moving our left legs when everyone else moved their left legs, and using the right number of beats to turn so that we wouldn’t find ourselves face-to-face with the entire rest of the class. By the end of the hour, though, as we wiped our faces off with moist towelettes, we’d been converted. Now we bring another coworker with us, and the three of us have become loyal students.

Higashi Honganji has been hosting these classes for a year and a half now, and they’ve grown slowly by word of mouth. (It may help that if you bring a friend, you get one free class for yourself.) Nelly has been doing Zumba for seven years and teaching for three, lured to the program at first because she loved to dance. Growing up in Mexico with two great dancers for parents, “it’s in our blood, I guess,” she says.

In addition to her Little Tokyo class, she teaches six other classes per week, all on top of her day job: working with mentally disabled children. It’s obvious that she has the right disposition for both jobs—her presence, effervescent and strong, carries our class.

The most important thing to know before your first Zumba class is that you won’t be given instructions. All the learning of new steps comes from watching Nelly and trying to follow along with her, which means plenty of stumbling and confusion, at first. Nelly’s moves are crisp, confident, and square on top of the beat. When she makes a mistake, she sticks her tongue out and laughs at herself.

“The point of Zumba is to enjoy the music,” she tells me. “If I have a mic and shout out instructions, you won’t hear the music. It’s not really about how well I’m moving my feet or if I’m doing it right, it’s just about having fun. That’s it. Just having fun.”

To a soundtrack of merengue, cha cha, bachata, quebradita, reggaeton and more, we shake our hips, reach our arms, strut back and forth… we dance to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” flexing our biceps to the line, “I work out.”

We may not always know what we’re doing, but we have fun trying.

When our non-Zumba-going coworkers ask us to teach them some of our moves in the office, though, we never do. It’s not so much that it’s embarrassing (although, yeah, it is embarrassing to shimmy in the newsroom), but that Zumba has become its own contained, almost sacred, world, a world where the normal self-consciousness of daily life goes out the window and smacking your butt in a room full of women who could be your grandmothers, granddaughters, daughters, and aunts is not only acceptable, but freeing, pure fun.

Plus, “it’s like ‘Fight Club!’” says Gwen. “You know the first rule of Fight Club: You don’t talk about Fight Club.” And similarly, you don’t bring the outside world into Fight Club, er, Zumba. At least not business concerns, despite the fact that plenty of the students are members of community organizations who work with each other. Our Zumba class is on a different plane.

Class always ends with a slower song, a chance to stretch our muscles and cool down. After leading us in one last arm stretch, Nelly brings her hands together at her chest in a yogic pose, smiles tranquilly, and leads us in applause.

By the we step outside again, the sun has begun to set, and the skyscrapers of downtown glow before a quickly darkening sky. I’m invariably drenched in sweat, but in the cool evening air, with wind chimes from neighboring apartment buildings jingling their tunes, the U.S. Bank building peering protectively over the city, and my muscles aching with life, I can’t think of a better way to end the work week.

Zumba with Nelly Martin happens every Friday night at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. The first class costs $10, and all subsequent classes are $5 each. Students can park for free in the temple lot, entrance on Third Street.

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