Watching Carla Hamilton-Henry in the floor-to-ceiling studio mirrors on the front wall feels like you're part of your own personal pep squad.
Ciara's "Level Up" blaring through large speakers at the back of the small room drowns out the sounds of a dozen feet sliding across the floor in unison. She jumps and turns, leans and sways, sweat beading at her temples as one arm flies up to cue the next move. When she makes eye contact with each person in the room — and she does so pointedly — rather than feel intimidated or scrutinized, they smile. The mood lifts. Lips start to move to the song's lyrics. Arms, legs and hips loosen up. It's a metaphorical "hair down" moment.
And just five minutes into the Zumba class, everyone's already forgotten they came to workout.
Sitting in the empty ballroom at Capital Ritz Banquet & Dance Center, Jennifer Su Lucio points to a series of frames on the wall just above her head.
"That's Beto Perez when he was really young," she says. "And that's Mom and Dad."
Flashback to the mid-1990s: Alberto "Beto" Perez is rushing to teach an aerobics class. In a move that changes the trajectory of his life forever, he forgets his aerobics tape. But he doesn't turn around to fetch it — instead, he brings in salsa music, recorded from the radio, and completely improvises a class.
By the early 2000s, he's named the new dance-fitness blend Zumba, and it's quickly sprawling across Miami in his wake, a sea away from his hometown of Cali, Colombia. It leaves crowds of enthusiastic Zumbies along the way.
And more than a thousand miles away in Mid-Missouri, Drs. Philo and Kwei Lee Su are watching a VHS tape.
"Mom and Dad loved it," Su Lucio says — it's what made the glossy hardwood floors of the Capital Ritz become the scene of Zumba's next venture.
It started small, with just three certified instructors, and it has snaked its way through the community since. Behind the doors and across the threshold of the Capital Ritz and various Jefferson City gyms is a world sound-tracked by the infectious rhythms of Latin America.
Sandi Groetsch moves like she's 20. Her feet don't seem to miss a single beat, and her hips swing to the salsa footwork in fluid movements as if it's merely muscle memory.
Maybe it is — she's been taking Zumba classes for 15 years. As a child, she took ballet and modern dance. Then it was jazzercise. Belly dancing. Tai chi. Line dancing. It's no surprise she's at the Capital Ritz five days a week.
She doesn't particularly care for exercise but was born to dance, she says.
"It just makes me feel so good," the 74-year-old says with a wide smile. It must have something to do with the endorphins, she adds.
Serenity — that's how Capital Ritz instructor Sky Meashintubby describes the feeling Groetsch can't quite put into words. And while a mood lift might seem like a pleasant side effect from a good workout, it's completely intentional. Zumba instructors are trained to "drop their problems at the door" and bring 110 percent to the floor in front of their students.
"It's not my class; it's the students' class," Meashintubby says. "For them, they could be having the very worst day possible, grumpy and upset from work. But once they're here, once they cross that threshold, it's their class and their workout. It's one hour where they don't have to be a boss or a worker."
Many times it's a visible change. People often come in depressed, angry or maybe they're dealing with a lot of things happening in the world, Su Lucio says, and then "all of a sudden, they leave and they're happy." She's also not the only one to think so. Over the last few decades, there have been a plethora of psychological studies chronicling the positive effects of movement — and many times dance, specifically — when it comes to mental health.
There's a lot of intentionality behind the music of Zumba, too.
Outside of keeping the aerobic dance consistent across the world, the 70-30 Zumba ratio makes sure the songs played in classes are uplifting and inspiring. Latin music generally makes up 70 percent. Over the years, artists like Pitbull, Wyclef Jean, Daddy Yankee and recently Maluma have taken over booming speakers in Zumba classes. (Some Zumba fans across the internet even joked the Super Bowl halftime show with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, both Zumba favorites, was a Zumba party.) For the leftover 30 percent, instructors are encouraged to incorporate popular pop or hip-hop songs that resonate with their audience.
Not only is there a plethora of music to choose from on your own, the Zumba Instructor Network refreshes monthly with music and new choreography.
"They pick that music on purpose. These guys are mixing music constantly, picking popular songs. If you go to the airport in Miami, you'll hear the music. I've gone in airports in Dallas and heard it," Su Lucio says. "It's international music, and it uplifts your spirit. We have some hip-hop, but it doesn't do the same as the Zumba music — there's something."
Su Lucio answers the following question without hesitation. Why hasn't Zumba faded out like many other fitness trends? What makes it different? Zumba is for anyone, she emphasizes, and it sparks joy and a sense of community.
"And only Zumba students kind of stick around after class to talk," Su Lucio adds. "Spinning, body pump — they come, and then they leave. But here, we're trained to build a community."
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"Giving is what this CREW is about!"
Those are the first words you read on Z-HYPE CREW's Facebook About page, followed by another enthusiastic statement. And the crew and nonprofit, founded in 2014, takes its mission statement seriously.
Made up of Jefferson City instructors, the crew stays mobile and gets out, putting on Zumba warm-ups at walks to end Alzheimer's and various color runs across Jefferson City and Columbia. For the past few years, they've raised money for breast cancer research at their annual "Party In Pink Zumbathon." Last year, the group raised $818 to be donated to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. And in 2018, the group raised $780.
Most recently, Z-HYPE planned a Zumbathon in mid-January for 7-year-old Sevi who was born with Auriculo-condylar syndrome, a rare condition that affects facial development. Sevi is set to have his third jaw distraction surgery this year. Unfortunately, the event was rescheduled for a later time because of winter weather.
For the instructors, being able to host fundraising events and give back through Zumba is a win-win situation — they essentially get to have a dance party for a good cause.
And while Zumba's fundraising events are a way to take care of others and support health causes, the exercise in disguise is first and foremost a way to take care of yourself.
When Hamilton-Henry's doctor told her she had aerobic-induced asthma, she was left in a state of near shock. There she was, attempting to face her personal health concerns, and exercise, her doctor said, was likely bringing on another. She was already dealing with high blood pressure, migraines and arthritis in her back. She'd already received treatments for the latter.
But doctors, she remembers, always seemed to skirt around the problem.
"No one ever really said, 'If you lost weight, most of your problems will go away,'" she says. "So finally, I said, something's got to give. Diabetes runs in my family; high blood pressure runs in my family — I don't want any of that. And I don't like feeling the way I feel."
She took it upon herself to make a change, but she just wasn't getting as far as she wanted. That's when she ran into Vandderlee Hughes, a personal trainer and wellness coach in Jefferson City. She attended one of his boot camps and saw her body changing. Before long, she had stopped taking as many blood pressure pills, she used her inhaler less and the migraines subsided.
"And I said, 'I want to do this for a living. This is what I want to do,'" Hamilton-Henry says, her eyes large and sparkling.
That's when she got certified in Zumba, searching for a way to reach more people, share her journey and help others follow theirs. Just this past October, she received her certification to be a personal trainer as well.
"I feel so much better, and I tell people, 'Do not give up. I promise if you stay with it, your body is going to change. If you dedicate the time and effort toward it, all those things you complain about? It's going to go away. I promise you. It will,'" she says.
Walking into her class in early January, the first one of the year after a holiday break, Hamilton-Henry is lively as ever. Her high-energy sparks excitement in the dozen or so women milling about in front of the mirrors. Among them is Natalya Hall, and although it's her first time at Hamilton-Henry's Zumba class, she doesn't let the footwork trip her up. It's only after the class is over that Hall sits on a bench near the door to catch her breath.
She's known Hamilton-Henry as a friend and seen her fitness progress in the past years.
"I'm just really proud of (Hamilton-Henry). She started a few years ago on a lifestyle change and she started a different diet and cut back on her eating," Hall says.
"She didn't just do this for a moment, you know?" Hall adds. "People got big on that lifestyle change. It was like a fad. Instead of becoming a fad for her, it became her lifestyle change."
Hall is chasing a lifestyle change of her own. The 37-year-old has six children, and says she feels she needs to start taking care of herself more seriously. She and Hamilton-Henry have joined together for a year-long fitness journey.
"I'm getting older, and I need to get into a place where I don't have a lot of complications with health. Being African American, I've already got some health risks related to me that you don't even get because of your family. We're most susceptible to heart disease. I want to take care of myself," she says.
Attending a Zumba class is just the start for Hall, and it's one that's surprisingly easier than she imagined.
"I'm excited," Hall says. "I'm ready to be a part of the family."
Sitting at a side table in the Capital Ritz after an hour of Zumba with Su Lucio, Zumba instructor Lue Johnson shrugs and smiles, the fuzzy poms on her light pink hat bouncing slightly.
"Coming home without doing Zumba, I feel drained, tired — like something is missing. Then what I'll do is turn on the music, dance in the kitchen and cook," she says, and then adds: "I'm a better person dancing before I make it home."
Johnson has been part of ZIN for eight years now. When she's not teaching her own classes at Anytime Fitness and Capital Ritz, she's shaking her hips and bobbing her head to the beat in virtually any Zumba class she can get out to.
It's just after 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the students are finally filing out, saying their goodbyes until the next class. Although the average age you might see step into a Zumba class is 30-50 years old, you'll find people like Groetsch, 74, or Johnson, 54.
And that's the beauty of it, as instructors all agree: Zumba is for anyone, young or old, of varying fitness levels. And it doesn't matter if you "can dance" or not.
"I think I'm going to be like 90, in a wheelchair, in a nursing home, dancing and moving," Johnson says with a laugh. "Give me a walker! Dance will be a part of my life — and I think that's what keeps us young, dancing."
She's not ashamed to share her love for it, either. With Zumba songs often being popular on the radio and vice versa, it's not a surprise instructors or students might be tempted to bust out a move in airports, grocery stores or shopping malls.
"I was in Hy-Vee one day, and I was just dancing with the basket. My husband was like, 'What you doin?'" she lowers her voice as if imitating his desperate whisper. "I said, 'Dancing.'"
"You're in the store! People are looking!" he'd responded. Johnson grins, recounting the moment.
"Let them!" she'd said. "If they come up to me, (I'll say), 'Hey, I'm here at Capital Ritz on Mondays, 5:30 p.m. See you there!'"