A Permissive Circle: World Literature and Zumba Dance

by Claire Chambers

Beto Perez and ZumbaIf you've read any of my blog posts for 3 Quarks Daily or columns for Dawn's Books & Authors section, you may know me for my criticism of world literature. But as it's the holidays, I want to write about something more frivolous.

I have a confession to make: as well as being a lecturer in global literature, for the last five years I have also moonlighted as a

Zumba, if you're unfamiliar with this high art form, is a dance fitness programme. Like all self-respecting cults, it has its own creation myth. Godhead and co-founder, Colombian Alberto 'Beto' Perez, began his career as an aerobics teacher in Florida. One day, the story goes, he arrived at his class only to realize he had forgotten his aerobics cassettes (yes, it was the 1990s…). He improvised a class based on the Latin music tapes he had in the car, and the punters loved it. He then teamed up with two more pragmatic and business-minded Albertos — Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion — and Zumba Fitness was born.

A typical Zumba class is built around four main dance styles. Most people are familiar with Cuba's elegant, sexy Salsa. (Less well-known is its offshoot Salsa Choke, which originates in Beto's native Colombia and intermixes Cuban panache with the rhythms of Zumba's next core dance, Reggaeton.)

Perhaps best described as Latin hip-hop, Reggaeton hails from Puerto Rico. Its edgy, urban lyrics and beats have made their way across South America. Some of Reggaeton's most famous musicians, such as Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Pitbull, have an even wider following across the globe.

Merengue is the third style, which most people have heard of but may not be aware that this is a fast march from the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean. It has an even beat but can become very frenetic, with moves that have names like double hesitations, pretzels, and cradles.

Finally, Beto introduced his national dance, Cumbia, which sprang from the history of slavery. Cumbia was one of the musical styles Cumbiafeatured on the soundtrack to the Netflix series Narcos, about Colombian drug dealer Pablo Escobar, and has a hypnotic 'oom-pa' beat. In one move, called the machete, dancers mimic the cutting of sugar-cane in the plantations, while in another known as 'sleepy leg' they emulate slaves with their ankles in chains carrying candlesticks in their hands. Cumbia has probably travelled the most easily of all the Zumba styles, with most Latin countries having adapted it and invented their own versions.

Zumba is not limited to these four dances. Salsa, Reggaeton, Merengue, and Cumbia simply form the core of the class, and many others are thrown in by the instructor, from Flamenco to Samba to Belly Dancing. As a specialist in South Asian literature in my day job, my signature is to include a dance from the Indian subcontinent in every class, whether it is to Bollywood classic 'Sheila ki Jawani', bhangra such as 'Tunak Tunak Tun' or 'Hadippa', 'Jugni Ji' by British-Punjabi music producer Dr Zeus. The inclusive nature of Zumba means that it embodies the kind of happy hybridity famously championed by postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha.

Taking these diverse dance styles, most of which are traditionally performed with a partner, Zumba turns them in to a kind of high-energy line dancing (it's a lot better than it sounds, I promise!). The programme took off in the US in the early 2000s and went big in Europe around seven years ago. Other similar programmes such as Bokwa and FitSteps have tried to challenge Zumba's popularity, but Beto's following shows little sign of diminishment.

Zumba routines are based around songs with different speeds and levels of intensity, as compared with aerobics' more homogeneous Zumba 3QD four to the floor rhythm patterns. This ever-changing pace means that Zumba is a kind of interval training, a varied form of exercise which can trick the body into burning more calories than steadier rhythms. Additionally, Zumba's music should be uplifting and intricate, so that the time seems to pass very quickly and class members don't feel as though they're exercising. Finally, research suggests that Zumba — and dancing more broadly — is good for mental health. During the class, one has to think about one's feet and arms all the time, so there is no room for thoughts about work or other stresses, in what is a type of mindfulness.

Zumba attracts an international fan-base. At my Christmas Eve class at the University of Leeds, UK, there was a reduced crowd of 13 in attendance. Only one class member and I were white; the others were students from East and South Asia, or were Black or mixed-heritage. As well as hybrid music forms, then, Zumba apparently provides space for spontaneous ‘conviviality’. This space, Paul Gilroy explains, positively disrupts binary thought and ‘the leaky barriers of race and absolute ethnicity’ that dominated imperialist discourse and persist today.

The dance programme is less pluralist in relation to gender. In Britain, it is dominated by women and, to a lesser extent, gay men. Many buttoned-up Britons seem to think it is simply unappealing to straight men. In less inhibited Italy, I hear, Zumba cuts across genders and sexualities in a way that is genuinely inclusive.

Zumba also has a ruthlessly commercial side. Under the slogan 'Zumba Love', the company will sell you anything from neon pants to a bumper sticker emblazoned with the ominous slogan, 'Zumba Changed My Wife'. One of the best articles to pick up on those aspects of the programme most ripe for satire is by a feminist anthropologist based at Princeton:

How am I, an outsider, to follow these wordless instructions, dictated by gestures as subtle and specific as a swift Circle dancemovement of the head, or even merely the eye, in the direction of the foot intended to kick? The instructor offers no answers, merely pelvic thrusts and the shrill cry of an “arriba.”

Zumba is emphatically uncool. It nonetheless conveys important truths about the world and its music, which can be useful to the postcolonial scholar. With profuse apologies to Frantz Fanon for wresting his words out of context, when dancing I often think of this sentence from The Wretched of the Earth: 'The circle of the dance is a permissive circle: it protects and permits.'

At the end of what has been a very difficult year 2016, I think world literature and Zumba dance can help us keep sane in a milieu that seems to be collectively going mad.

Happy holidays!