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Joyous Zumba 

Dance and exercise to a Latin beat

click to enlarge Marla Joy (times 3) - PHOTOS BY TIM GRAY
  • photos by Tim Gray
  • Marla Joy (times 3)

Six bucks can buy you a margarita. That's also the fee consummate musician and merrymaker Marla Joy charges for the Zumba classes she teaches from Fortuna to Trinidad.

"Drink one margarita and you might consume 300 to 600 calories," Joy says. "You might feel OK, but for six dollars come in and get a better high than a cheap margarita and burn 600 calories. You don't need three or four drinks to reduce your inhibitions and express yourself dancing. We get right into business for an hour."

Zumba is an aerobic-cardio fitness system of short dance combinations taken from merengue, salsa, cumbia and other Latin-inspired steps choreographed to mostly Latin rhythms. Zumba classes incorporate fitness exercises such as bicep curls, knee lifts and squats into the dance combinations. The rousing music and choreography make for a jubilant atmosphere, more of a dance party than a fitness class. 

Zumba was born of a happy accident in Cali, Columbia, in the mid-'90s when aerobics instructor Beto Perez forgot his aerobic music and grabbed cumbia, merengue and salsa tapes from his backpack, then improvised steps from those dance traditions for the workout he was leading. The crowd loved it. And this totally fun craze began.

When I lived in New York, I didn't need a gym membership. I walked everywhere and swam at my neighborhood pool. I could take modern dance classes of infinite styles any day of the week from morning until nightfall. Disappointed by the lack of modern dance classes here in Humboldt, I joined HealthSport and started taking Pilates, which, by the way, along with being great for anyone's back, is particularly good training for dancers. Delving into the minutia of muscles and bones while doing Pilates is an absorbing addition to but no substitute for dancing.

Why not aerobics? Way too mindless for me, and bad for the knees. My best friend from high school, a size-two aerobics queen, would drag me to a class whenever I visited her. She and her friends would be high kicking it, all buffed out in the latest gym fashions, flashing tennis bracelets, pumping their arms in the air. (It was the '80s). It was a demanding workout, but too repetitive and I found the pop music annoying. Yet there was a palpable group energy; the women were definitely experiencing a collective rush. That's what I needed: a big, sweaty, group-dance high to get me into the gym on a regular basis. But I wanted one with some artistic merit.

When I saw fliers for Marla Joy's Zumba classes, I saw the potential for a wild ride. Joy is an incredibly hot and versatile musician who plays flute, bass and drums. Hip to dance, Joy has collaborated with choreographer Laura Munoz in live performances -- she even wrote music for Munoz' piece Take Off Your Skin -- and more recently accompanied the modern dance classes Munoz teaches at Dell'Arte. Joy taught Israeli folk dances for the band Chubritza; she also gets crowds dancing playing bass in the Cajun band The Bayou Swamis. A musician teaching a musically rich form like Zumba was a sure win.

I like that she's older, too. At HealthSport the younger Zumba instructors I encountered emanated positive energy and clearly taught the steps. But they did it to the max without considering the varying ages and levels of fitness in the room, or reminding participants to listen to their injuries and limitations, or suggesting modifications (not doing squats as deeply, for example). They were young fillies who do not yet harbor concerns for the longevity of their bods.

Marla was all over it. Many of her students are in their 60s and 70s, even their 80s, and some are as young as 12. She emails students information on safe fitness practices and proper footwear. She prefers spaces like the Bayside Grange, the Fortuna Monday Club and Trinidad Town Hall, all of which have 80-year-old wood floors and no mirrors that could cause some people to be self-conscious. Joy urges folks to "get into their bodies and let go wherever their comfort level is."

Joy sees Zumba as a mood enhancer. For anybody who saw her banging it out on the electric bass on the stage in Dell'Arte's Mary Jane, the show about Humboldt's infamous cash crop, it would be hard to imagine this vibrant woman needing anything to enhance her effusive mood.

Leading class, a salt-and-pepper curly mane bouncing about her blissful face, glistening with perspiration, Joy is open, inviting all to join the party. Sure we all want to burn calories (the workout burns two to four Weight Watcher points), but more importantly, dance provides the health that comes with moving and the satisfaction that comes from moving expressively with others. It takes a lot to get me to shimmy my shoulders and breasts, but there I was, hips loose, no mirror, no inner critic saying, "You don't look right you big oaf," just smiling, Marla Joy sliding slinkily side to side, ardently pointing out the next direction -- a gliding, gyrating, generous beam of energy.

To check out Zumba Fitness, exercise in disguise, with Marla Joy, call 845-4307 or e-mail

And if you've ever wanted to learn to tango, your chance is coming up at  American Tango Camp with classes for beginners and intermediate level taught by Debbie Weist, July 25-29, at the North Coast Dance Annex. Different from Argentine, American tango is danced in social settings and easier to learn. Weist guarantees you'll be dancing in a week. The following week, Aug. 1-5, it's on to merengue -- and bolero, the slowest of the Latin ballroom dances. Sounds steamy. Call 707-464-3638 or go to



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About The Author

Stephanie Silvia

Stephanie Silva directed her own modern dance company in New York City and is a student of American poet Diane di Prima. She teaches movement and writing.

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