Zumba class a “joyful dance” in Empire

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By F. Josephine Arrowood
Sun contributor

The county’s best-kept winter sport secret isn’t skiing, snowboarding, or the best ice fishing hideaway: it’s the weekly Zumba classes at the Empire Township Hall. The 5:45-7 p.m. Wednesday evening sessions, led by Amy White of Maple City, carry a zippy, warm exuberance that enfolds students coming in the door on a chilly, blusterous night. On a recent post-holiday, pre-snow evening, an amazing 30 women showed up to salsa, samba and reggaeton their daily cares away (10-15 students is more common, according to the veteran teacher). At just $5 per session, with those under 18 free (currently sponsored by the Empire Community Foundation), the international aerobics dance sensation has found a firm footing in Leelanau.

The Zumba craze began accidentally some dozen years ago in Colombia, when aerobics instructor Alberto Perez forgot to bring his usual dance-mix tapes to a class he was leading. He decided to substitute some salsa music he had on hand, and was inspired to incorporate some basic Latin dance steps into the traditional aerobics format. As he later expanded his repertoire to include Cumbia, merengue, mamba, cha-cha, and other up-tempo, ethnic dance moves, the new hybrid fitness craze spread across the Americas. By 2001, the Zumba brand was created; 2005 brought collaboration with national fitness organizations American Council on Exercise and the Aerobic Fitness Association of America, creating standards for workouts and certification for instructors. Since then, Zumba has exploded across the cultural scene; its offerings include routines for seniors, children, strength training, aqua-Zumba, and even a Wii Fit video-console format. For at least the past three years, seemingly regular-looking community members have been Zumba-ing up a storm behind steam-obscured windows in gyms and community centers across Leelanau County.

In her day job as a Glen Lake High School teacher, Amy specializes in life skills classes that have evolved dramatically over the 30 years of her career as an educator there, moving from “home economics” to a health-based curriculum that includes nutrition, fresh-food cooking, and fitness, including Zumba.

“I went through the [official Zumba] certification to teach it at Glen Lake. I did it for about a year and a half before I was convinced that this would work for other people, too. I’ve only taught this for about thee years,” she says. “The first year, I did it with K.B. Sutton,” before going solo at the township hall (she has also taught at The Homestead resort, and in the summer, offers a second, day class at the Township Hall).

“Everyone needs a little lightness,” says the teacher whose high energy, encouraging smile, and short, dark pigtails recall 1950s Hollywood star Annette Funicello.

“Dance is just so joyful! It’s an evening class — they’ve been at work all day, they drag their bodies over there — sometimes they’d rather be home on the couch — after about 10 minutes, you see smiles and energy. It’s so fun to see people, kids latch onto it!”

She describes her class format: “We do about an hour and 15 minutes of full-blown workout and stretching. A certain percentage of the official Zumba formula is supposed to be all different ethnic kinds of dance. And most don’t have yoga. The stretching is always shortchanged in cardio classes. This gives us time for our muscles and brains to talk to each other.” She leads about 45 minutes of upbeat dance routines, then guides students through a series of gentle yoga poses to warm down.

The students, most of them women (occasionally a man will attend), get to socialize a bit as well, before and after the workout. A wide cross-section of the community shows up here, and a current high schooler may find herself doing mambo, salsa, merengue, and hip-hop alongside a 50-something artist, a retiree, a 20-year-old college student, a community leader, a grandmother, an arts maven. And with no mirrors to reflect self-conscious eyes or awkwardness, people can check their inner critic or fashionista at the front door, and enjoy moving their bodies with the abandon of kids again.

One amusing requirement is that students wear a hip scarf (Amy supplies a boxful), sewn all over with small metallic, jingly discs.

“Some people are a little resistant at first, little self-conscious,” she laughs. “It’s really about playing, part of the ‘joyful noise,’” she stresses. “Even my high school students will put them on, including the boys — the girls egg them on!” Recently some of the girls approached her with the idea of creating an after-school Zumba event for elementary students this spring, modeled loosely on the peer/self-empowerment program Girls on the Run.

“It’s more like we’re just dancing together. To have it be all ages is really fun for everyone. I really like the town hall [idea] — a place to come together,” White says.

Kathy Ricord of Empire Township has been attending for about two years. “It’s so much fun! I’ve met tons of nice women. I love the workout, too; it’s a really nice break in the week.” She adds, “I think we have somebody from every decade [in class]!”

Amy concurs, “My mother, 81, does her thing in one corner, and over there, a 16-year-old’s shaking her booty!” Her mother, Mary Horney, also takes the Zumba Gold class on Thursday mornings at the Township Hall. Led by Marta Hubbell, the workout is geared towards seniors, and those with mobility issues or just starting a fitness routine.

“My mom is an incredibly hard-working woman, gardener, very active all her life. I grew up in a city, in Grand Rapids, but my mom grew up on a farm. We used to go out to the country to pick peaches, bring them home and can them. She’s really influenced me.”

Amy brings a lifetime of skills and passion to her teaching, both in Zumba and at the high school. She came to Glen Lake as a freshfaced, 21-year-old graduate of Central Michigan University, and later earned her MA from Michigan State. She states that she tries to live what she teaches about cooking fresh food and staying active.

“I’m like everybody else — I eat my junk food!” she laughs. “It’s a real effort to cook from scratch; sometimes, you might have to just cook ahead on weekends. I teach more based on a Mediterranean diet — healthy oils, whole grains. The old food pyramid and how it’s changed has really confused people! Change can be overwhelming: what we ‘should’ be doing in fitness.”

She continues, “I’m very impassioned about nutrition and health. I couldn’t do what I do! I know how I feel when I eat crappy; you do, too. The older you get, the more you need to move, watch how much we can drink, how much water — it’s resilience you need to have! The concept of modeling, whether it’s your own kids or your students, speaks 10 times louder than words.”

She concludes, “It’s truly a reciprocal relationship. When I’m up there and dancing to the music, I see the people smiling and dancing — I feel things like stress and everything else just falling off me! You get so much more with this group — hope — kind of a nice feeling — community. Share the Zumba!”

This GlenArbor.com story was sponsored by the Glen Lake Manor, where you can take in the view of Little Glen Lake while enjoying dinner at the Manor.