Exercise in disguise
As Ireland's first national Zumbathon approaches, Nathalie Marquez Courtney finds out why Zumba appeals to a huge range of ages
Dance your cares away: Zumba is a mix of movement and musicClass act: (In yellow) Donna Murphy, Zumba Fitness co-ordinator
This April, thousands of hip-shaking Zumba addicts will take to the RDS for Ireland's first ever national Zumbathon, in aid of the Share a Dream foundation. The fun, positive vibe of Zumba will echo the charity's efforts to bring joy and magic to thousands of sick and disabled children across the country.
Zumba instructors from around the country will be bringing their devotees to Dublin to dance alongside world-renowned Zumba instructor Hermann Melo.
Some 1,500 people are expected to attend, raising critical funds for the foundation.
Over the years, the appeal of Zumba has grown, and, surprisingly, so has its credibility in the fitness world. An intoxicating cocktail of latin-inspired beats mixed with cardio workouts, Zumba was at first seen as another contender in a long line of fitness fads. Ten years on however, it has grown into a global lifestyle brand with 14 million people taking classes around the world on a weekly basis.
In Ireland alone there are over 1,000 classes held every week. The are celebrity fans, a colourful Zumba clothing range and the company's CEO Alberto Perlman was named one of the top five CEOs to watch in 2013 by 'Inc Magazine'.
The fun appeal of Zumba is plain to see, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Each class is taught by an energetic instructor against a backdrop of latin sounds designed to get your blood pumping, your sweat pouring and your feel-good endorphins pulsing.
However, beneath the beats a strong dedication to fitness. "It's all based around exercise in disguise," explains Donna Murphy, Ireland's Zumba Fitness co-ordinator.
"You don't feel like you're working out. But you're burning, minimum, 600 to 1,000 calories per class, plus toning."
Even though the routines are based on traditional latin dance styles like Salsa and Merengue or urban styles like Reggaeton, specialised cardio, core and flexibility movements are deeply integrated into every workout.
"Even if you're doing something basic, like a salsa forward and back step, you incorporate a forward lunge at the back," says Donna.
"Or you could do a Samba and do a leg lift, so you'll be working your core muscles and your thigh muscles."
Part of Zumba's success lies in how well it works in group settings and how it can adapt to different fitness levels.
A class can take place with secondary school students in a school hall as well as among professional athletes. On top of her regular weekly classes, Donna teaches Zumba to soccer and rugby clubs. "There's a lot more cardio in a Zumba class than running on a treadmill," she explains.
"I teach rugby lads for pace – they do a bit of cardio pace on the pitch, but nothing like this."
Fitness professionals are often surprised by how much they get out of a session. "I've done training with people who have been fitness professionals for 10 or 15 years," Donna recalls.
"They had disregarded the Zumba Fitness programme and I encouraged a few of them to come and try it – they were on the ground after three songs."
For many, the fringe benefits of dance classes like Zumba can begin to outweigh the reason they signed up in the first place.
While fitness is at the forefront, dance classes often focus on creating experiences that are fun and engaging, so students don't feel the hour go by.
"For that one hour, you forget everything that's going on in the outside world," says Donna. The soundtrack to these workouts plays a huge role in this.
"The music was scientifically proven to release endorphins," she explains, while Hermann adds regularly changing the music and the routines help keeps things fresh.
"This way, we won't ever get tired of it," he says.
As well as increasing fitness levels, research is showing that dance-based exercise can boost your brain power. Dancing challenges your memory, co-ordination and focus areas.
A 2003 study in the 'New England Journal of Medicine' showed that out of 11 physical activities, dancing was the only one that reduced people's risk of dementia by 76pc.
Celebrities like Shakira and Jennifer Lopez have been known to use Zumba routines to get their bodies in top physical shape for gruelling world tours.
World-renowned instructor Hermann Melo has trained with the A-list, and says that the immersive nature of the workouts is what appeals to them. "Celebrities are like everyone else when they work out," he says.
"Water, towel and sweats. They forget about what is happening outside the classes."
But perhaps Zumba's biggest achievement is how its popularity has spread to countries like Ireland, where hip-shaking was rarely seen outside nightclubs.
"When people come to the class, one of the first questions they ask is, 'how do you learn to shake like that?'" laughs Donna.
"But the whole idea is to loosen your body and all your muscles. We have hips; we are naturally born to swing them, to dance with them and to enjoy them."
Ireland's first Zumbathon takes place on April 21 in the RDS Concert Hall, Dublin.
Health & Living