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All the Zumba Ladies: Reclaiming Bodies and Space through Serious Booty-Shaking

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Daniel "Danny" Hernandez leads his Zumba class in South El Monte | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa
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In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse

"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
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A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" is based on this story. Watch it here now.

If the current summer drought were to defrost an undiscovered chunk of ice buried deep in the San Gabriel mountains to reveal a stunned Spanish explorer, a-la- Encino Man, and were he to stumble down past Arcadia and Temple City into El Monte, and peer into one of many Zumba studios, drawn by its hypnotizing rhythms and neon colored façade, his wildest colonial fantasy would have come true. He would have finally reached the mythical island of California ruled by Amazon warrior women. Inside the studio he would see a small clan of women, shaking and shimmying, kicking and punching, hooting and howling in a sweaty trance-like state to blasting, high bass music. This ritual dance must be in preparation for war. Their leader, Queen Calafia, must surely be near, probably getting her nails done up the street at the Valley Mall.

Throughout the city, neon colored flags drape over windows and flutter out on sidewalks like bastions of a newly declared nation: Zumba nation.

And like other nations, Zumba demands sovereignty and claims territory. Over the last several years, its territory has notably expanded into small storefronts all over Greater Los Angeles. In El Monte, it has claimed many units that had either remained unoccupied for years, or hot-potatoed over a series of flimsy, short-lived businesses. Zumba has also carved niches for itself in community centers, churches, parks, and pretty much any public or semi-public space.

Zumba is a worldwide branded fitness trend that consists of Latin-inspired music and exercise choreography. Founded in Miami in 2002 by Alberto "Beto" Perez, Zumba brand is easily identifiable by its line of brightly colored exercise apparel that includes clothing, shoes, sweatbands, and other accessories and DVDs. The music and moves draw from cumbia, salsa, merengue, bachata, and reggaeton, and fuses them with more typical cardio exercise such as aerobics.

While most know Zumba as a wildly popular international fitness trend, poor and working class women in El Monte have hybridized Zumba from exercise to performance, to a way of life. Women who practice Zumba develop and embody a kind of barrio feminist aesthetic that helps them reclaim their bodies and public space.

Zumba's popularity among girls and señoras of all ages is exciting and intriguing for a number of reasons. Number one: An unprecedented number of ladies have become regular exercisers and committed booty shakers. Number two: the Zumba aesthetic fully embraces its place at the bottom of the fitness and fashion food chain. Part of its charm is its paisa-pocho-ness that comfortably and inelegantly mashes together banda, hip hop, and reggaeton, wraps neon spandex over everything, and runs the whole hot mess through a copier to make copies of copies of copies of itself. Number three: Zumba creates safe public spaces for women while allowing women to build real networks of support and friendship that carry beyond the studio.

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Bodies Reclaiming Space

At a Zumba studio, this song never gets old. Women of all ages, shapes, and sizes find their own sexy in their bodies and then carry it right out of the studio onto the street.

In El Monte and South El Monte, Zumba studios can be found on every couple of blocks along Garvey Avenue, one of the major commercial streets. Garvey has been plagued by its two main sources of commerce, seedy car sales lots and prostitution, making this street a particularly unwalkable space for women. The misuse or lack of use of public space in working class suburbs such as El Monte renders the space more inhospitable and oppressive for all bodies, but particularly female ones. Urban settings or other communities with vibrant public spaces are often more conducive to public female interaction. Women hanging out on corners to chat, or shouting down the street is nothing to be surprised about.

On Garvey, women become hyper aware of their bodies and how they are carried. In patriarchal communities, such as this, female bodies become publically accessible as soon as they enter public view. No matter how they are dressed, or the nature of their activity, they are subject to public scrutiny, desire and judgment. By these patriarchal rules, a sensual body, or an embodied body (one that does not hide itself) announces itself as accessible, for pay or otherwise. In short, exhibiting any signs of embodied sensuality or sexuality puts the female body at risk, ranging from insult to outright physical violence.

Zumba studios on Garvey Avenue and other main streets in El Monte provide rare havens of safety for women. Once inside, a body can be whatever it pleases. This space is protected. Zumba ladies are quick to protect and defend themselves and each other loudly, aggressively. Oftentimes this sphere extends outside the door, encompassing even public sidewalks. Clusters of women stand outside, talking, laughing, cussing, confiding, eating, sometimes dancing (and even post-Zumba smoking. Don't tell anyone). Zumba ladies claim the sidewalks they stand on. By extension, a true Zumba lady claims all ground she walks on, both in her home and on the street. It is her right to be where she is and who she is.

Standing outside of the studio smoking cigarettes, they will not lower their eyes to any passerby. They cast daring glares from behind red burning cigarette butts, glowing in clusters with each drag like a constellation of stars. Unless, of course, you're nice to them -- in which case they'll invite you to Zumba class and sweetly advise you not to smoke.

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Zumba aesthetic

Zumba is not your slick gym wear kind of place that shows off chiseled bodies (or sometimes deliberately conceals the doughier ones). Shredded and re-woven t-shirts and neon spandex blend into a sort of banda-cumbia Flashdance on acid. Spandex and colors are good. Glitter is great. Full make up is good too, although not required. Some ladies practice in studded stretch jeans and tank tops.

Austere in my yoga-inspired exercise gear (black and greys), I wouldn't have imagined that lip gloss and cute socks could make any kind of real physiological impact on a workout. But as it turns out, it does. When I see the determination in the dozens of lovely blue-shadowed eyes shimmering like their sequined tank tops, sweat dribbling down their faces like strings of gems, I know that these ladies are the real thing. They are cutely-clad warriors.

"Style is very important. Even though we don't judge each other, we care about how we look," says Daniel "Danny" Hernandez, a local Zumba instructor and El Monte native. He notes that his Zumba students become very invested in their workout gear, sometimes purchasing pricey Zumba brand clothes, but most often personalizing their own to flaunt their style. "They wear it to work, they wear it to the store, they wear it to pick up their kids from school. They show it off," says Danny.

A very well-manicured middle aged woman, known simply as "La BonBon," struts into the studio with a freshly altered t-shirt. Everyone immediately notices, admiring the unique twist-tied pattern on the back. She promises to teach them how she did it.

Zumba fashion and aesthetic, though strongly protected by the corporate brand, is also characterized by its DIY quality. To be specific, its more of a DIT (Do-It-Together) approach because ladies, such as La BonBon, help each other with their outfits and in the process build friendships. Style becomes part of the glue that binds these women into a subculture of their own.

We can think of the Zumba attire as being part of an aesthetic tradition known as rasquachismo. In Tomas Ybarra-Frausto's 1989 essay "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility," a touchstone in Chicano arts discourse, rasquachismo is "a working class aesthetic based upon lived reality..." He elaborates by saying that "To be rasquache is to be unfettered and unrestrained, to favor the elaborate over the simple, the flamboyant over the severe. Bright colors are preferred to somber, high intensity to low, the shimmering and sparkling to the muted and subdued." He may as well have described Zumba well before its invention. Most importantly, it is an aesthetic with a particular attitude "rooted in resourcefulness and adaptability, yet mindful of stance and style."

While stance and style are expressed in fashion, it's perhaps more significantly expressed in the body. Not only do the ladies revert conventional tastes in style, but also in body image as they become more comfortable and confident in their own bodies.

Veronica Marquez (L) and Judith Olalde (R) in their Zumba attire
Veronica Marquez (L) and Judith Olalde (R) in their Zumba attire
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Reclaiming Female Bodies

By most standards, particularly patriarchal ones, performing sexuality by working class Latina mothers can hardly be considered "tasteful." Yet in El Monte, the performance of sexuality in Zumba is one of the aspects that gives it its special zest. Nothing gets the ladies going like forceful reggaeton pelvic thrusts ("toma toma toma"), sexy waist writhing, and vigorous shoulder shimmying. There is no time for self-consciousness about jiggling breasts or shaking asses. In all literalness, the objective is to use what you've got. Skinny ladies seem at a loss. If you have an ass, no matter what it looks like, please please let it jiggle. Hard bodies are not expected nor necessarily desired here.

In terms of ass-shaking, recent feminist conversations about Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" music video put into question its play on the public gaze and ownership of black women's sexual bodies. To a less obvious extent, Zumba puts brown bodies back into the ownership of brown women. But unlike Minaj's booty quiver, Zumba ceases to be a performance for and contestation of the public gaze, despite it taking place in a public space. The gaze takes place in the mirror, and it's personal. It's an observation of the personal physical body that belongs to oneself. And because at the heart of the whole thing there is joy, the gaze is also a celebration. Booty, thighs, arms, tummies of all shapes and sizes -- you take joy in shaking whatever you've got.

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This is not be confused with vanity. Danny signals to a wall of mirrors at the front of the room. "It takes courage to stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself dance for an hour."

The performance also takes part in the collective gaze shared with the other ladies in class. In Veronica Marquez's Zumba classes up the street, dances can spin off into impromptu call-and-response choreographies, or spontaneous dance battles. At peak moments, ladies allow themselves to get carried away in the pleasure of dance, often improvising their own moves while the others cheer her on. "The girls come to have fun. Also, they become very supportive of each other," says Veronica.

In short, Zumba can be considered a barrio feminist practice because it helps build bonds among women who may not otherwise be able to establish friendships.

"Many of these women are housewives and have kids. A lot of women are dedicated to just their families. But they come here and they can relate to each other. They become friends," says Danny. Indeed, participants become more than classmates, by carpooling their children to school together, or giving each other rides to doctor's appointments and grocery stores. Eventually they become weekend party pals, rolling in packs to baptisms and quinceañera parties. On Mondays, they come back to class jovially comparing panzas and lonjas through their zebra print stretchies. After class, the women take a breath of fresh air, feeling good about their sweaty glistening bodies.

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Zumba as a (non) pedagogical tool

Frankly, Zumba doesn't do much to help women understand their bodies or how healthy weight loss works, but to be fair, not many trendy exercise programs do. Unlike the severity of training programs such as Crossfit, Zumba is clearly about having a good time. After all, the official Zumba motto is "Ditch the workout. Join the party."

"An instructor is not a trainer. We are here to guide a class," states Danny. "The class is not the instructor, it belongs to the students."

Over time, Danny has learned that the first and most important thing that Zumba participants can do to get fit is to let go of their fears and insecurities. "I just want you to enjoy yourself. The weight loss will follow"

According to Danny, "Most women in this community have never exercised before. They don't want to work out because it's so unfamiliar to them."

One of these women was Judith Olalde, who had virtually no interest in Zumba or exercising when she attended her first class. To be more exact, she was tricked by her sister into coming. But after the first class, she was hooked.

She notes her own transformation in the last two years. When she started Zumba, she was an exhausted mother of three with no energy or interest in exercise. She had gained weight over the years and did little to take care of her appearance. She laughs, remembering her early Zumba outfits: oversized sweatpants over plastic body wraps. Now she is one of the Zumba class queen bees, sporting tights, spunky zebra-print tops and electric colored socks that match her headband and shoes.

What keeps Judith coming to class five days a week is not its attention to proper form, or the science of body sculpting. Like so many ladies, she's become devoted to the study of what happens when exercise becomes a pleasurable part of your daily life. They are students of what it feels like to be energized from head to toe by a song you really like. They learn that while they build bonds with other women, there is also something empowering about being committed to something that just makes you feel good.

Judith's laughter during class is probably the only thing louder than the music or the fashion. If the defrosted Spanish explorer were to stick around the studio long enough, her jokes would make him blush. He would also see young mothers seeking brief respite from the never-ending demands of their kids, and grandmothers that in middle age have rediscovered the pleasure of dancing to sweet cumbias they'd once danced to in their hometown in their youth. He will see babies lulled to sleep by noise in their strollers and pre-pubescent girls learning to dance bachata. He would see that Judith, La BonBon, and all the other Zumba ladies are not preparing in the art of war, but in the more rare and sophisticated art of joy.

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Photos: Yosuke Kitazawa