Dance ’til you drop weight at Martha’s Vineyard zumba classes

Kris Martin's Saturday morning Zumba class at The Workout and Vineyard Tennis Workout — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Sweat and laughter aren’t generally associated with the same activity, but those who have discovered Zumba — a dance-based exercise regimen — know that the two can coexist happily.

On a recent Wednesday morning, a group of women trickled into the large, mirrored instruction room at the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard in Oak Bluffs. Many of them knew each other and exchanged greetings while waiting for class to begin. After an hour of executing dance steps associated with a number of different musical genres, the participants were smiling, joking, and pumped for their day ahead.

“You’re exercising, but it’s like you’re at a dance party,” said Joyce Dresser, a Zumba regular. “There’s a lot of hip movement, which whittles away at your waist. You feel sort of like Sofia Vergara of ‘Modern Family.'”

During the one-hour class, The instructor, Jane Loutzenhiser, led the group through short choreographed sequences in, among other things, Latin dances that form the core of Zumba. She also included Bollywood, 40s swing, jazz, bluesy rock and roll, and even a lively gospel number.

“It’s just dancing,” said Ms. Loutzenhiser, who also teaches Zumba at the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven. “And who doesn’t like to dance? Some people think they can’t dance. But that’s not true. Everyone has a song in them — a dance in them.”

Ms. Loutzenhiser uses official Zumba-created choreography that incorporates dance steps with classic aerobics moves like squats and lunges for a high-energy workout. “Zumba is beginner friendly,” she says. “It suits all levels of fitness and all ages. The choreography is designed to be either low- or high-impact. You can modify the whole thing. People with joint problems or other issues can still enjoy Zumba.”

In the average Zumba class, the instructor will lead participants through 9 to 15 short songs, each with its own appropriate choreography. In Ms. Loutzenhiser’s recent class, Bollywood music was paired with lots of slinky arm motions and belly dancing moves. A jazzy number had dancers mimicking sax and trumpet playing and displaying the classic “jazz hands.”

Ms. Loutzenhiser has a dance background, so teaching Zumba, her first fitness undertaking as an instructor, was a natural. “Zumba appeals to the dancer in me,” she says. “I get to go and dance for an hour.”

Max Powers, on the other hand, had no dance training when she first decided to take a training course for Zumba instructors a year ago. “I’ve never taken a dance lesson,” she says, “but Zumba allows me to feel like a dancer. Zumba is designed to make dance accessible to everyone. The steps are easy, simple, repetitive. The choreography makes sense.”

Although she had previously taught fitness classes for 13 years, before she took the Zumba certification course, Ms. Powers says, “I had lost touch with teaching and really got out of shape after my second daughter was born.” Since starting with Zumba about a year ago, she has lost 28 pounds, started teaching other classes, and is training to run a half marathon.

Ms. Powers teaches regular classes at the YMCA and RISE Performing Arts and she fills in at the Workout and Vineyard Tennis Center near the airport. She will also offer Saturday morning classes at the Yoga Collective at Island Co-Housing starting on Saturday, October 13, with a free class, and open-to-the-public classes at the Tisbury School.

As an instructor, Ms. Powers enjoys the fact that students learn simply by emulating her moves. “I don’t talk all the time,” she says. “All of the cueing is done just with my body. The music is hugely important. My voice is not distracting to the fitness experience.”

The variety is part of what keeps people motivated. Ms. Powers includes hip hop and other dance forms in her routines.

“I have in my repertoire about 68 songs that I have the choreography for,” Ms. Powers says. “On any given day I put together a 15-song mix. I will always include at least six different rhythms and a number of different intensities. Zumba is an intermittent fitness style. The intensity should go up and down song by song and within each song.”

The Workout and Vineyard Tennis Center has offered Zumba classes longer than anywhere else on the Island. Six years ago, right around the time that the Zumba Academy was founded, longtime fitness instructor Kris Martin went off Island for certification and started adding Zumba to her roster of classes. Part of the appeal to Ms. Martin was the unique quality of the workout from a teacher’s perspective.

“The moves are completely different from what those of us in the fitness world have been hearing for the last 25 years,” she says. “All of a sudden we were given permission to do things like sway and pump your hips. For a long time in the fitness world it was very linear — forward and back, side to side. The body doesn’t only move that way naturally. We’re constantly pivoting, twisting from the core. You still want to focus on your core and keeping everything stable for safety.”

Ms. Martin, who has been one of the most popular fitness instructors on the Vineyard for 25 years, points out another advantage to the choreography-based workout. “It keeps the brain working as well as the body,” she says. “It’s a great mental workout.”

As with any new skill set, beginners, especially non-dancers, may feel frustrated at first. “It’s fast with a lot of swiveling and a lot of twisting,” says Ms. Martin. “I tell people that there’s a learning curve. Allow yourself time to learn the moves. There are two things you have to learn: the basic moves, then the choreography on top of that.”

She suggests to newcomers that they just focus on the footwork at first and add the arm and hip movements as they gain more confidence. Some people pick it up right away, while others may need to attend a few classes before they have mastered the moves.

Like Ms. Loutzenhiser and Ms. Powers, Ms. Martin pays a fee to receive new material every month to keep the participants engaged and on their toes. “It keeps it fresh,” she says. “Every month I get a new music CD, every other month a video with new choreography. We’re constantly adding new things to the class.”

Ms. Martin, who infuses a lot of hip hop in her classes, also teaches a class called Zumba/Hip Hop Hustle, which combines elements of Zumba and a hip hop dance class, which she formerly taught.

Along with all the other attractions of a fast-paced, dance-oriented workout, there’s something to be said about spending an hour with people who are all enjoying themselves — the dance party factor — which is one of the things that draws people to Zumba and gets them to stick with it.

“There’s somthing that happens in these classes that does not happen in other fitness classes,” Ms. Powers says. “I feel that I understand chi for the first time. A student pointed that out to me. We’re all moving together. We’re all breathing together. There’s a collective energy. I’ve never experienced it in life and I’ve certainly never experienced it in the gym.”

This Monday, Oct. 8, Curves in Vineyard Haven hosts the second annual Party in Pink Zumbathon to benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which fundraisers for breast cancer research, education, screenings, and treatment programs. Admission is a $5 donation. To enter, or for more information, call 508-696-3030.