The Night of the Jungle Zumba


I am suspicious not of the probability of there being Zumba because one of the things my town has a lot of is Zumba. These are clean white storefronts with stenciled “ZUMBA” signs, open to the street, where groups of housewives in colorful stretch pants boogie in the evening to thumping Latin club music.

I am suspicious because the zumberias are typically in the center of town and the address we’ve been given is on the outskirts, toward the jungle, in a neighborhood with limestone rubble mounds and homes that are either traditional pole-thatch Maya or one-room cinderblock.

My British coworker Poppy and I walk to the purported location in our exercise clothes—me in spandex running pants and a tanktop and Poppy in tie-dyed harem pants and a cropped t-shirt that says “Hero.” The road is unpaved and children stare at us. The Zumba is not apparent. Instead there is a tiny grocery store with a porch where kids are shouting at ancient arcade games and a few moms sit chatting.

A tiny, round girl strides over. Que buscas? What are we looking for? I consider the likelihood that this little person will be helpful and decide it’s as likely as not. She stands with hands on hips, sticking out her belly. I use the Spanish pronunciation: “Soomba?”

She grins and points at a concrete room attached to the store, which has a wide doorway but no door. The walls are painted Pepto pink and decorated with family photos. I look for a clue that it might be an exercise facility but it is clearly someone’s living room. “En esta casa?” I say pointing at the house. “Siii,” she says, as if this is the most ridiculous question in the world and gives me a giant hug.

The moms on the porch confirm that this is indeed the location of the Zumba and so we wait. The little girl pulls up plastic chairs and indicates that we should sit, then sits herself and stares at us. She rests her chin in one hand, as if conducting an interview without asking any questions.

A short, shiny young man arrives with a boombox. He is wearing a white polo shirt with a large button pinned to his chest that says “I ‘heart’ Herbalife.” He shakes our hands and invites us inside. The room is warm and I note that there is no fan. On the front wall there is a taped banner that says ¡Felicidades! with a painted picture of a baby in a diaper holding a balloon.

I ask the teacher how much the class costs and when he points to the button, I have an aha moment that morphs into suspicion. I have read about Herbalife as an alleged pyramid scheme where people pay to become sales reps to hock a nutritional supplement system, rarely making more money than they’ve invested. The company notoriously prays on the poor. This town has a lot of poor and an abundance of Zumba. And here I’d thought it was all for the boogying.

The teacher takes out a large plastic pill container and explains that if we buy a pill for 15 pesos, it will amp up our body’s ability to digest fat while we exercise. We awkwardly decline and I’m surprised that this doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

There are now two other women in the room and when the teacher claps his hands, a few more wander in from the store. I have a second to notice that I feel like a giant in this tiny room surrounded by short, sturdy Mexican-Maya people. I realize it is a blessing that there is not fan because the ceiling is low enough that Poppy and I could potentially be decapitated. Then the teacher snaps on the boombox and there is no more time to think.

The moves and the changeovers are fast, standard aerobics class side-stepping grapevines and knee lifts but mixed with sexy hip rotations and shoulder wriggles that I feel ethnically unqualified to execute. No one notices my stiffness and soon I’m focused on just keeping up as the temperature rises. Several children pull up chairs at the doorway to watch.

Each song has a new routine and periodically the teacher switches places with one of the women who turns out to be the co-teacher. I am completely mesmerized by her hips which are so fluid I wonder if they’re padded with jello.

We have a quick break to drink water and to grab a breath of air on the street and it’s on to the second set. It delights me by involving both booty-popping and the only English song of the evening, “Sexy and I Know It,” a ludicrous dance number about out-of-shape men dancing in speedos. I dance, sweat and as the song instructs, “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, man.”

I am on the verge of collapse when we are rewarded by the cool down, a non-sexy, but practical stretching session. At the end, the teacher gives us a round of applause. The teacher asks for Poppy and my names, and then has the entire class give us a second round of applause for surviving our first Zumba session.

Although we have been let off the hook for the payment I don’t feel right participating and giving nothing in return. I ask the teacher again about the charge and this time he takes out three plastic containers and explains how three Nutrisystem components—a pill, a tea, and a nutritional shake—work in tandem to take off weight. We listen politely and decide on the tea because it sounds the least chemical and potentially refreshing; a few of the zumba participants had been drinking brown liquid in plastic cups through straws throughout the session. One of the women from the class hurries back to the store to brew us our drinks.

While we wait for the tea, we sit on the porch and enjoy the cool air on our faces. It is bright under the porch’s fluorescent lights but the street is dark, the streetlight placement sporadic. I hope I remember the path to take us home.

The tea arrives, steaming hot in plastic cups. Not iced. When will we learn not to assume. We pay our 15 pesos each, profusely thank the woman with the tea and the teacher, and wander sweating back out into the night.


4 thoughts on “The Night of the Jungle Zumba

  1. Your posts are always poignant. This one in particular touches me. I think because there is much more in here than expected cultural differences, the story you tell reflects our commonalities in an understated way that somehow becomes striking against its own background.


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