What I Learned from my Mom’s Zumba Class

zumba photo by schoeters


Alex Pollack wasn’t sure how he felt having his mom scream “booty work” at a crowd of dance-crazed strangers. So he took one of her classes to find out. 


“Booty work!” she shouts into her wireless headset. The instructor, an enthusiastic blonde in her early twenties, performs a half-squat and lifts her glutes in rhythm to Katy Perry’s “Roar”. “Booty work, everybody!”

I’m a twenty-eight year old man who has never really shaken what the good Lord has given him. I’ve moved my hips, sure, but to engage in “booty work”?  I’ve never dreamed of associating my “booty” with any kind of labor. When I try to comply with my instructor’s request, I end up looking like a white guy dancing in a Dave Chappelle skit about white guys dancing. Zumba.com tells me that Zumba is “a fitness-party that blends upbeat rhythms with easy-to-follow choreography, for a total-body workout that feels like a celebration.” So here I am, one of two men “celebrating” Zumba in a class with thirty-seven college-aged women.

“Get crazy!” my instructor says. If I were confused when she said “booty work,” I’m even more confused now. What I gather from the women in the next row is that “get crazy” means to improvise a dance step in between the more structured moves we’ve been executing. And so I “get crazy” by making a fist and pounding my chest in full King-Kong-ain’t-got-nothin’-on-me mode. Did I really sign up for this?

We’re excused to get a drink of water. I feel my forehead; am I sweating? A little bit, but not as much as I had in some of the other exercise classes I’ve taken. I might not be a natural dancer, but I’m holding my own in the class, which is preparation for a second Zumba class I will take later this week. That class will be taught by a different instructor, one I’ve known for many years. She is the one who’d given me a swirly straw, a glass of milk, and a plate of Oreos before many childhood bedtimes. She’s the one who’d read me Bernstein Bears, who’d signed me up for swim lessons but let me quit when I didn’t like them, who’d chauffeured me to soccer, basketball, tennis, and sleepovers, who’d been not only family to me, but a confidant and a friend. I’m talking about my mom, or as I’ve grown to call her more recently, Zumba Queen.


“How did it go?” my mom asks me on the phone after my first Zumba class. I tell her about the “bootywork” and the “get crazy” and how I sweated a little bit but not enough and how the instructor didn’t talk enough in class.

“Right,” my mom says. “You’re not supposed to talk in Zumba.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Made things confusing.”

“I do know,” she says. “The instructor is not supposed to talk in Zumba.”

My mom became a certified Zumba instructor in early 2009, and soon after lassoed control of classes at the YMCA and Curves where she salsaed and high-kicked before dozens of appreciative suburban women who mimed her every move. Or at least that’s what I figured she was doing, for I didn’t attend any of her classes. I didn’t feel like it was “my thing”; I was too much of a man to shake my hips. And so I treated her new gig with a mixture of bemusement and casual support; I helped her buy songs off iTunes for her playlists, all while wearing a little punchable smirk on my face. It was adorable, my sister Anna and I agreed, that mom was AGE REDACTED and arranging choreography to sorority girl acts like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Maroon 5. “Alex, do you know the new Pitbull song?” my mom would ask, and I’d laugh and she’d say, “What’s so funny?” “It’s just that you suddenly know more about pop music than Anna and me. It’s adorable.” “Stop calling me adorable!” my mom would say. “I’m not a doll!”

But what was I supposed to say when she clicked on “Rude Boy” three times and bought three copies of the same song on iTunes, and then called my sister and me in a frantic “WHAT DID I JUST DO” state? My sister and I got a big kick out of any and all scenarios involving Mom and Zumba, no matter they real or imagined. One time we decided that it would be hilarious if our mom would take over my sister’s wedding reception with an impromptu and bizarre Zumba dance demonstration that would begin with the DJ killing the lights and my mom busting through a huge paper sheet to the beats of “Fire burning, fire burning, on the dance floor.” The wedding guests would be puzzled, forks and knives suspended in the air near their mouths.

When I was home one summer, I tried to ape my mom’s moves when she practiced in the living room before her class. I tried to match her step for step as if it was profound comedic performance art (think the wild gesticulations and arched eye brows of The Mask era Jim Carrey), until I ran out of breath thanks to the kangaroo pouch of fat I’d developed thanks to one too many Orville Redenbachers.

Four years later, what’s changed? Well, after trying a few fitness classes and whittling away my kangaroo pouch, I’ve decided I’d be a fool not see how my mom runs a class. As an adult, I talk to my mom about everything from our daily routines to our dreams and our fears, but I’ve never been in a place where I’ve had to see my mom inhabiting a role other than that of My Mom, a title I’m eternally thankful she’s assumed.

“Do you feel pressure? I’m coming to your class!” I tell her. It’s 7am but I’m dressed and ready in my gym shorts and sneakers. “Please,” she says, dismissing me.  She fills her water bottle. We’re in the kitchen. This is our stage.

But an hour later, the stage is new and unfamiliar. It’s Fitness Studio A in the YMCA, and I’m waiting not for My Mom, but for “Kira the Zumba Instructor”. The class is made up of rows of stretching women trying to get a dose of cardio before they go to work and/or drive their kids to school. “Kira” strides into the class and walks straight to the stereo system. She’s composed, confident, in control. The music starts, and the rows of women straighten and wait, as if she is the sergeant and they are the soldiers. Without a word, she nods, points to the left, and suddenly, the class like a whole, live organism, moves to the left.

I want to find some humor, something I could share later with my sister, but I’m not finding any. Before long I’m sweating more than I did with the twenty-something instructor. After each song, Kira claps quickly, and the rows of women imitate her clap with the same speed and sound. She nods to the right; we all move to the right. She nods to the front; we all move to the front. We jump, we turn, we kick, we slide, we salsa. Her quiet poise rubs off on us; we get pumped up and go, go, go without any screams of “booty work” or “get crazy”. I no longer feel bemused or casually supportive of my mom’s Zumba expertise; the only word I can come up with now is proud. She is the Zumba Queen, we are her royal subjects, and there’s nothing funny or adorable about it.

Photo: schoeters / flickr



About Alex Pollack

Alex Pollack lives and works in Nashville, TN. You can find him at alexpollack.com.


  1. Theorema Egregium says:

    I may be neurotic as two Woody Allens, but when I first went to Yoga classes I triple-checked if men were even allowed there. That studio was in the tradition of two male Indian sages and Yoga masters, and I did my best to remind me that throughout most of its history Yoga had in fact been allowed ONLY to men, but still as I opened the door at the studio I felt as if entering enemy territory. The fact that 75% of the students and most of the teachers were female didn’t exactly help.

    That uncomfortable feeling vanished within 2 months. But still it is funny how a few years can turn something traditionally male into something where men barely dare to enter.

    I understand it is similar with Zumba? After all it was developed by a man, and nowhere have I read that is intended for women. But it seems to be the popular notion. Maybe because it has to do with dancing? After all ballroom dancing these days also has the reputation of unmanliness, although it by definition takes a mixed couple to do and has traditional gender roles woven into its very fabric. But on the other hand that male aversion to a physical activity because it is close to dancing does not at all apply to Capoeira, for example. I don’t understand it.

    • Theorema, I suspect that a lot of men in America, at least, don’t often seem to parcipate in classes very often because of prescriped ideas of masculinity. Not because women are sending out death beam signals that they aren’t welcome.

      At one point, Yoga might have only been allowed to be practiced by men but that wasn’t historically the tradition in America to begin with. I don’t think most American men, even historically, made Yoga a big part of their day. SO I am not sure in the context of where I live, that it was so much about Yoga once being a mans’ game and now is a woman’s so much so as women’s interest in Yoga drove the popularity and now more men are also seeing it as viable option.

      • Theorema Egregium says:

        Thank you. I agree totally with your estimate, but I must correct you in one small point: I am not American nor have I ever set foot on the continent. Though in some respects the social situation in all of the “western world” is similar, in other respects it is quite diverse. Please check the cultural imperialism contained in the implicit assumption that everybody on the internet is a US citizen, unless explicitely stated otherwise.

        It is bad enough for us to be fed with a steady diet of US movies, consumer products and politics.

        • I never assumed you were American. I only spoke of America because that’s where I live. And yes, I am proud to be an American. Even though we have a long way to go. I’m sorry you find our culture so offensive that movies, consumer products and politics are that distateful.

  2. Nice Alex!

    As a woman who has taken alot of gym classes, it’s always nice and welcomed when a man is in the class. It’s actually pretty rare to get men in gym classes unless it’s boxing or weight lifting.

    I will also say that I think a lot of men might be surprised the level of fitness alot of women are capable of varying ages and body types. I know a lot of women who make health and fitness a regular part of their lives but who don’t have perfectly trim little bodies that one might primarily associate with fitness. I see more older women make strikes to push their limits in gym classes and I hope we can encourage more men to see these as viable options for themselves too.

    • Theorema Egregium says:

      I have a question to you there:
      You say men are always welcome in gym classes, not least for the sake of variety.

      On the other hand there’s a lot of women-only gyms and they are frequented too. I understand that women can feel stressed by the presence of men. Even discounting incidents of cat-calling or inappropriate hitting on or outright sexual harassments, it is argued that women feel pressured to look attractive and are afraid to wear loose, plain clothes and go without makeup when men are around. I cannot totally understand that because I believe the harshest judgement of female looks occur not by men but between women themselves, but if they say those reasons are there, who am I to disagree?

      So there are those two incompatible notions. How can you solve that puzzle? Is it as so often a case of not all people are the same and to some women applies the one scenario and to others the other one?

      • Well Theorema, I’ve personally actually have received more judgement and comments about my body from other men then I ever had another woman. I have found women to be largely supportive of one another.So it’s been my experience that men are actually harsher judges of women’s looks.

        Secondly, I think if you are a woman choosing to go to an all woman gym, then yes, you probably don’t want men to be aroudn while you are working out. However, the gym I belonged to (I have since moved to another state) was associated with a local hospital and had a wide range of clientele. There were older people, younger people, people recovering from accidents or surgery, people who were super fit…but whatever people there was, there was always a lot of diversity. And that made it more comfortable for me. I know that certain gyms sometimes attrack different clientele. The gym I belonged to fit for me. And that’s really what it’s about. And I know for me, and having taken a lot of classes over the years, it is infact rare to see men in them and when men are in them, and they are regulars, they usually develop gym friendships with the ladies in the class.

        So yes, not all people are the same. Some feel more comfortable around men then others. I don’t think we should vilify women who may not feel comfortable working out around men. I think all we can conclude from that is that they don’t have the confidence about themselves or their bodies to be okay in that situation.

        • Theorema Egregium says:

          Thank you for your answer!

          About the judgements, I had a female colleague at university say about another colleague (who was a ballett dancer and in terrific shape): “Well, if you’d cut off her head she might end up looking pretty.” And I never heard a man say anything remotely as vile as this about a woman (apart from ridiculous adolescent antics of 14-year-olds who try to show how “alpha” they are by calling Angelina Jolie or Halle Berry “fugly”). Just my personal experience. It may be not statistically significant but it is all I have.

          I am not vilifying anybody at all. Like I said, I can’t judge women’s fears and aversions and have no right to.

          But talking of aversions: The gym where I am working out has a women’s area which has a very forbidding door with a “no men allowed” sign on it like a traffic sign. The men’s area, including the men’s locker room has a glass window on the door and no sign at all. In fact I was shocked to see that often there’s female cleaning staff at work in the room while men all around are getting undressed or in the shower (which is not seperated by a door).

          Do I have a right to privacy at all? In theory maybe yes, but in the real world the truth is, that I don’t. If I complained about potentially being watched by women while I change my clothes they would not even understand my concern. I’ll just have to get used to the fact that some options are only for women.

          • We all have our experiences Theorema. I’ve heard men joke about putting a bag over a woman’s head just to sleep with her. Perhaps the lesson for both of us is that both men and women are capable of being cruel.

            I could see how a gym that was co-ed, but had different rooms where only women or men were allowed would breed a little tension. And I can understand your concern there.

  3. Alex, Thanks for the fun article on Mom and Zumba. I don’t know how I’d feel if my Mom was teaching Zumba, but when a close friend said she was starting a Zumba class and would I come and support her, I said, “Sure.!” I had no idea what Zumba was, but Maddy is my friend and I’m certainly up for supporting a friend by going to a class. Well, it was a bit strange, being the only guy with a bunch of women, but I’ve never been afraid to do things a bit different, and I’ve always liked blurring the gender lines.

    Turned out I liked the music (mostly Latin) and I liked the exercise and I liked being with friends. My wife tried it, but she likes Curves and Yoga and slower, quieter movement.

    I’ve been going to Zumba 3 times a week for 3 years now. Not only am I the only guy (although I keep telling my guy friends its fun. I can get a few to try it, but no one seems to want to stick with it. Not sure what makes it so fun for many women and so “not fun” for so many men), but I’m the oldest person. At age 70 I believe that shaking my booty will keep my body in shape, prevent back problems and other infirmities of aging.

    Have any other guys here at Good Men tried Zumba. Why did you try it? Why did you continue or not?

    As for me, I may just be doing Zumba when I’m 100. Why not? Someone has to hang out with all those hot, sweaty women. And my wife even encourages me.

    But they, I

    • FlyingKal says:

      I tried it.
      Living in a rural area, there’s not all that much options for regular gym exercices during the dark and wet seasons. I tried it on recommendations from a couple of (female) friends.
      Unfortunately, the instructor lacked timing, or “feeling” for the beats in the music. She was alwys off, either before or after. And trying to look at her and follow the rythm at the same time made me nauseated in the end. So I stopped going after a couple of times.

      Otherwise, I liked the concept. Just sorry about the instructor.

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