Written and photographed by Rana Kamaly
Photos taken at Hers Gym Emerald Branch
A fun, bouncy exercise routine that incorporates dance and aerobics to burn calories and build muscle, it is no surprise that Zumba has found an eager audience in Egypt. Community Times speaks to Jessy Larsen, manager of the Hers Gym Zumba team, marketing and social media coordinator of AFAA Group Fitness instructor (Zumba and TRX), and professional dancer and choreographer, to learn more about the origins of Zumba.
Zumba is no newbie to the fitness scene in Egypt; in fact, it’s been around for many years and has now become a staple of most gyms and fitness centers across the capital. And although I have trained with many instructors, it was training with the feisty Jessy Larsen that converted me into a committed Zumba enthusiast.
Born in Peru, Larsen grew up in Costa Rica; she landed in Egypt just seven years ago and has since played a huge role in popularizing Zumba in Cairo. Larsen’ energy, enthusiasm and moves make the exercise fun and easy, and her Latin background allows her to be creative with the dance and song selection. Even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, you will understand the song simply by watching her expressive face and following her moves. To be honest, it’s more like watching a dance routine than just an exercise.
Larsen’s classes are always packed, and people often line up in the hallway to attend and sometimes just to watch her dance. Her high spirits make her popular, and even when she is sick, you will find her dancing away, smiling and capturing the hearts of her students as they dance along.
Community Times speaks to Larsen about her experience with Zumba, its origins, and how it is changing the fitness scene in Egypt.
Q: What is Zumba?
A: Zumba is pretty much the most awesome workout ever. You get to dance to great music with great people and burn a ton of calories without even realizing it. They say that Zumba takes the “work” out of workout.
But it’s really a combination of high and low intensity moves. It’s known as calorie burning dance fitness party. The Latin music and moves makes it an exercise in disguise. It’s a type of cardiovascular exercise, but what makes it fun is that it doesn’t require perfection; beginners can join easily and advanced dancers can add their swag and make the dance their own. Basically, anyone with two legs and a heart can dance Zumba.
Q: How did Zumba start?
A: The craze now known as Zumba fitness is said to have started by mistake by Colombian trainer Alberto “Beto” Perez. One day in the mid-90s, Beto forgot to bring his regular aerobics’ music tape to a class he was teaching. With no music and a class to teach, he raced back to his car and got a tape of Latin dance music. Of course, the energetic beats of Rumba and Merengue fired up the place, and with his Latin dance knowledge and his choreography experience, he led his students through a Latin dance exercise; this is how Rumbacize was born. Soon it became the most attended class in the gym where he taught. Rumacize moved around with Beto wherever he went until the late 90s, when Beto’s entrepreneur friends helped him re-brand his class into what we now know as Zumba fitness.
Q: When did you realize that you were passionate about dancing?
A: I couldn’t stop moving and dancing even when I was a girl. I used to sneak out and go to Latin clubs and just dance. My parents didn’t approve, so I got into a lot of trouble, but it was worth it because it was so much fun. In my country, music is everywhere, and you just need to let your body follow the music. When I was old enough, I travelled to different countries to attend courses and workshops with amazing dance instructors to learn different rhythms and styles.
In the beginning, I tried to study like everyone else, and so I went into law, but then I quit. I ended up studying Theology and Culture and Religions of the world to become a Professor, which is very different than dancing! Now, I am a licensed Zumba instructor. I have certificates for Zumba B1 and B2, Aqua Zumba, Zumba Step, Zumba Toning, Zumba Kids and Kids Jr., Zumba Sentao and Pro Skills.
Q: What do you feel when you are dancing?
A: I think dancing is very private. It’s not just a connection with the dance floor, it’s a connection between you and your inner self – it’s being alive.
Q: When and why and how did you decide to become a Zumba instructor?
A: In 2008, I was living in Colorado Springs. I had just had a baby and I was overweight, so I hit the gym to “try” and get back in shape, but it was boring (sound familiar?). I was looking at the schedule of classes at the YMCA and found a class for something called Zumba. I didn’t know what it was, but the name was funny and it stuck with me.
One day, I was walking past and I heard a familiar Latin song, so I went to the studio and I saw all these people dancing salsa, having fun and sweating a lot. Since then, I never missed a class.
The teacher was a very nice lady from Brazil and we clicked right away. She told me I danced well and that I should consider becoming an instructor. This first class helped me battle my long-term depression. Afterwards,
I always felt so good, and that’s why I got addicted to it.
I didn’t decide to become an instructor until I came to Egypt. I moved here with my husband and daughters in 2009, so I started looking for places to take a Zumba class. And when I found one, the instructor was teaching anything but Zumba, and then I realized that she was not even licensed. I was disappointed, to be honest, so I decided to train alone. I asked permission to use the small studio, and with my iPod and ear buds I started dancing and practicing to the Zumba songs I memorized from my Brazilian instructor. When the owner of the studio saw me, she said if I get my Zumba license I could teach at her studio. So I went back to America the following month and got my Zumba license. And that’s how the magic started.
A: I was maybe the fourth instructor and the first one in my area (5th Settlement). People fell in love with the Latin beats. It was fun but challenging at the same time. It’s mainly a party after all; everyone just wants to forget their troubles, have fun and lose some weight.
Q: How do you create the dances? Are there basic moves and songs or do you come up with everything?
A: Well, Zumba provides the music and DVDs, so you can use them to teach in class. With time and experience, I have mastered the Zumba formula, and, because of my dance background, I can add more moves and my own spice to it. I love to add more of my own experience on the dance floor to the music. Now, I choose my own songs and dance moves. My students say that they like my class because it is different than other classes, and that I give them unique Latin style choreography. I like to say that I cheat because I speak Spanish. Because I understand the lyrics and I know the feeling behind the songs, I can act on them.
Q: How did Zumba help you get back in shape after giving birth to two daughters?
A: Well, I’m a full time instructor, so I teach several classes a week. My classes are fast-paced and full of fun and energy. I design them for myself first, so I choose the songs that I can connect with and that move me, and then I do the choreography. The choreography has to match what the singer is saying or what I feel is being expressed. This helps me give much more in my class. I also watch what I eat. I don’t starve myself, but I don’t over-indulge either.
Q: How does Zumba benefit women?
A: First of all, it helps with weight loss, as you can burn up to 1,000 calories in a single class. You will feel the sweat all over your body and the fat burning away. Second, it helps you tone your body, especially your core. Third, it’s a great workout to relieve stress, improve your mood and boost your confidence – it’s like therapy for some people, it helps them feel good during and after class. Finally, it improves your metabolism, coordination, resistance and endurance. Zumba also exercises the most important muscle in your body, which is your heart.
Besides being a good workout, Zumba has helped so many people around the world to be comfortable in their own skin and to love their bodies and embrace them by making them more confident and believing that they can actually change.
In Egypt, it has been a dance revolution, and I think it is liberating. I see it during every class, how the ladies step into the Zumba bubble and just forget about life, stereotypes, judging, gossip, etc. We all come with one thing in mind: let’s have fun. Zumba is helping to create a generation of dancers, dreamers, athletes, and artists, and this is something that Egypt has needed for a long time. Egypt also adds its own flavor to it; I have learned to move in different ways because my Egyptian ladies have taught me well.
Q: I know you have participated in anti sexual harassment campaigns and flash mob dance campaigns in Cairo. What were these experiences like?
A: It was a very interesting experience for me because I love to empower women, and the campaigns have been a great tool to spread awareness about the ways women can protect themselves from harassment on the streets. I’m a professional performer and when I was invited to dance in the street, the organizers did everything possible to make the experience safe and pleasant.
I have never been sexually harassed in or after a performance. Of course there are always people taking videos and pictures, but I am used to it, and this happens even in my own country. As long as they don’t cross the barrier and don’t invade my personal space, everything is cool withme. I know what I’m doing and I choose to do it, so I am aware of what to expect.
Q: What do you think is your greatest achievement?
A: Wow, that’s a big question. I think helping people learn about Zumba and making them fall in love with Latin music; inspiring my students to become instructors and seeing them lead others to do the same; seeing ladies achieve their fitness goals and change their life style. I love Zumba more than you can imagine, but I love my students much more.
I want to see them succeed in every single way.
Q: What makes a Zumba class special?
A: I think it is the personality and charisma of the instructor because nothing, not even Zumba DVD’s, will give you that. You have to work hard to become an instructor. It’s not only about how to dance or how to do fitness right. If you don’t care about people and you are just there for the applause or the attention, you’d better choose another career. We are instructors because we care first, and then because we dance. To be the best, you have to invest in yourself. I might not be the best, but I’m the best for my students and myself. It takes time, money, preparation, and a lot of sacrifice.
Q: What does is take to be a Zumba instructor?
A: To become a Zumba instructor you have to take the 2-day Zumba workshop, which gives you a license to teach Zumba (not a certification). You don’t need to have a dance or fitness background to become an instructor. But that will also determine what kind of instructor you want to be. I always advise newbies to go for the full fitness certification and dance classes if they want people to take them seriously. If you don’t respect your career, don’t expect others to respect you.
I think that Zumba will continue to grow because people love dancing. Five years ago people told me that Zumba is just a fad that will go away. But look at us now – Zumba is in 180 countries, and more than 15 million people take Zumba classes. I think Zumba is here to stay for some time.
To learn more about where to find licensed Zumba instructors, visit: www.zumba.com/classes