From Parkinsons To Autism Is There Anything Zumba Cant Tackle BARNEY CALMAN Joins The Worlds Largest
It is barely 9am but the crowd in the Peabody Convention Center in Orlando are hysterical with excitement. ‘Ohmygaaad! You are going to have the BEST time,’ enthuses the plump, middle-aged woman next to me wearing a figure-hugging pink and green tracksuit.
Given the airport lounge-type setting – all fluorescent lighting and garish carpets – I find this difficult to believe.
Then Joy Prouty, the woman we have all been waiting for, takes centre stage. The audience erupts into screams, whoops and wolf-whistles that would befit the arrival of a pop idol.
Dance your pain away: Josette Tkacic, a former ballet dancer from Santa Barbara, was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, but is in complete remission thanks to Zumba
We’re at the Zumba Instructor Convention 2013 and the petite 72-year-old, sporting a snazzy combination of white, black and gold, with a hint of fluorescent yellow, is about to lead a class.
‘Let’s dance!’ she says through a microphone headset. The beat thumps in through rock concert-sized speakers at a volume that makes my eyeballs shake, and we all shimmy into action.
From the front, Joy shows how it’s done – a step in, then a step back, maybe a wiggle of the shoulder. Every minute, one sequence segues seamlessly into the next and this goes on for an hour. ‘You guys rock . . . such great movers,’ says Joy, obviously not spotting my ineptitude amid the 500-strong crowd.
This is Zumba Gold, a lower-intensity version of the Latin dance-inspired fitness class aimed at an older, less mobile audience.
A few weeks ago, participating in this class (or any other Zumba format for that matter) would have been my idea of hell. But for the past year or so, there have been murmurings in the medical world of Zumba’s intriguing health benefits.
Golden girl: Instructor Joy Prouty leads a Zumba Gold class aimed at the older and less mobile audience at the 2013 Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida
Programmes backed by the renowned Harvard Medical School in the United States suggest that Zumba has promise in the management and even treatment of dementia and neuromuscular conditions.
In Britain, the charity Parkinson’s UK already runs classes for patients, and the bizarre yet incredibly positive discovery that learned choreography can have an impact on these diseases is being welcomed by the medical community, including experts at Oxford University.
Of course, any activity is good for us, but is there something unique about these kinds of movements? I was invited to see first-hand how Zumba instructors are being schooled to teach those with such specific needs, at a conference attended by 6,000 terribly enthusiastic instructors.
It almost pains me to say so, but what I didn’t bank on was just how much fun it was all going to be.
Mention Zumba to friends or colleagues and reactions will doubtless fall into two camps. Many will roll their eyes in a ‘I can’t think of anything worse’ kind of way. All those ‘high-fives’ and the demand for participants to wear fluorescent Lycra outfits is, well, not very British.
I DANCED AWAY AGONY OF ARTHRITIS
One of the most dramatic stories is that of Josette Tkacik, who three years ago was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that causes intense pain and inflammation of the joints.
The mother of one from Santa Barbara, California, says: ‘I just woke up one morning in such pain that I couldn’t move. My joints were incredibly swollen.
'I was rushed to hospital and within a week I was diagnosed with severe RA. I was told I’d have to go on medication, but I said no as I was trying for a child.’
Josette, 44, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, decided to throw herself into exercise.
‘I’d done Zumba before and knew it made me feel good. My husband thought I was insane as I could barely get out of bed.
‘For the first few months, I just moved very gently but then I started to find it easier. Within 18 months, all I had was swelling in my ankles in the morning.
'I have never taken drugs, and my doctor tells me I am one of a tiny minority to have gone into complete remission without them.
‘I follow a vegan diet, but I am in no doubt that Zumba is what helped me the most.
‘I now teach about 150 students a day, many of them with physical problems. We all have our challenges, but we can use that to help the next person. Nothing is impossible.
‘Get to a Zumba class, get happy for an hour, and you will be amazed with the changes.’
And yet, many of us have embraced the phenomenon. According to the company’s own research, nine out of ten women have heard of the class, and of these an astonishing 45 per cent have tried it. A third continue to attend classes regularly.
Today there are 1.2 million Britons participating in Zumba at least once a week in 13,000 locations, from Virgin Active health clubs to church halls in the most remote rural locations. In the Zumba community, they use the following slightly tongue-in-cheek equation to explain the success of the class: F = LBC.
It stands for Fun equals Lasting Behavioural Change. The same thing has been replicated in countless scientific studies: if a person enjoys a fitness activity, they are more likely to do it regularly.
Joy, a former professional dancer, says: ‘We ask Zumba Gold instructors to have a basic fitness training so they know how to manage specific needs.
‘I teach people with Parkinson’s, arthritis or cognitive problems, and stroke survivors. The classes can be adapted for everyone.’ But could Zumba really be a treatment for serious degenerative illnesses?
Astonishingly, the answer is yes. Research at Minot State University in North Dakota has indicated that classes not only have an effect on physical fitness, but also on cognitive (mental) function.
A group of 35 participants aged over 65 all took either Zumba or yoga classes for 30 minutes, twice a week. After six weeks they were assessed, including taking the Stroop test – a questionnaire designed to assess how fast the brain processes information. All showed significant improvements.
‘You always see a boost at first, just because people are getting off the sofa for the first time,’ explains Joy. ‘What was particularly surprising was that after 12 weeks, there were further advances.’
Lead researcher Professor Terry Eckmann, an expert on the academic study of fitness, particularly in ageing populations, is enthusiastic. ‘After the age of 35, our brains decrease in mass by up to three per cent every decade,’ he says. ‘So, as we get older, we are not as able to store and recall information as well.
‘Zumba involves following and participating in sequenced movements, an activity that creates new brain cells. Just as you can develop new muscle at any age, you can develop new neural pathways. It could be used to slow mental decline in dementia patients. Basically, the more brain mass you have, the longer it will take for the disease to eat it away.’
For the past four years, Zumba has been offered to Parkinson’s patients at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, which is part of the Harvard Medical School.
Josie Gardiner, 67, a former dancer who teaches the class, says: ‘Participants tell us they feel more balanced and stronger. If they begin to shake or freeze, they find that certain movements they learn in Zumba can help put them back to normal again. These are progressive diseases and we can’t be sure how fast a patient would deteriorate without the classes. But we do know they feel it is having an effect.’
Clinical social worker Lissa Kapust, who helped develop the programme at Beth Israel, adds: ‘The evidence of the cognitive effects of exercise is so strong, we now say, “Whatever is good for the heart is good for the brain.”
Strength to stand: Sass Mahuika, 56, from Gisborne, New Zealand, who was told she would never walk again, takes a few steps on the stage at the convention in Orlando
‘Patients tell us that when they stop doing Zumba they become stiffer and have more movement difficulties. When they see they can do the class, it inspires them to be more physical in other areas of life.’
The 127,000 Britons with Parkinson’s disease suffer a progressive loss of nerve cells in parts of the brain, leading to a deficit of a naturally occurring chemical called dopamine. The cause is unknown, but is probably down to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Dopamine plays a key role in regulating movement and a fall in levels is why Parkinson’s symptoms include involuntary shaking and muscle stiffness.
Muscle-strengthening exercise is a key adjunct to drug therapy. But, fascinatingly, dance seems to have a positive effect beyond that of other types of movement.
A landmark study at Washington University School of Medicine into dance and Parkinson’s found that attending twice-weekly tango classes led to patients being able to take up physical activities they had been unable to perform since developing the disease.
Results of the Washington study showed that after a year, there were significant improvements in balance and mobility compared with patients who did conventional exercises. Rhythmic rocking, or shifting weight from foot to foot – a strategy commonly used to address muscle ‘freezing’ in Parkinson’s – was singled out as particularly beneficial.
Joy says: ‘During classes, we do steps that move from samba to tango, from merengue to salsa – it’s mentally challenging. We know it works. Also, dopamine is released when we learn something new. We definitely need to study this link further.’
For me, the slightly over-the-top yet ultimately uplifting vibe of the conference is neatly summed up during the opening ceremony. Over the course of two hours, a succession of life-changing stories are told from the stage, prompting thousands in the audience to cheer, weep, whoop and weep some more.
American chat show host Sherri Shepherd speaks movingly about how she lost weight and beat type 2 diabetes thanks to the dance fitness class.
WE ARE PROOF THAT ZUMBA CLASSES WORK
For evidence of the benefits of Zumba on Parkinson’s, look no further than Beth Hochstein.
The 41-year-old retired foot surgeon was diagnosed with the young-onset form of the condition six years ago.
‘First, I noticed my little finger started to lock, and then my thumb. I ignored it, but then a month later my whole right hand started to tremor and I went to a doctor.
Fighting back: Beth Hochstein, pictured with a fellow Zumba fan, uses the exercise form to help manage Parkinson's disease
'After my diagnosis, the consultant advised me to exercise. A friend suggested Zumba, and I was hooked after the first class.
‘Three years later, I retired from my medical practice and decided to train as a Zumba instructor. Now I teach a class specifically for those like me with Parkinson’s. I have about ten students of different levels of ability.
‘I am on medication to control my condition but I believe I take less because of the dance. Oddly, even if I have trouble walking, I can run or jump. I notice these benefits in the people in my class, too.
‘Even if they are wheelchair-bound, I get them to stand and march on the spot, or just move their hands to the music.
'The beat helps get you into a rhythmic, fluid movement, even if you are feeling very stiff and shaky. And while people may come to class feeling miserable, they leave smiling and happy. We don’t know why it helps yet, but I know it does.’
Hannah Nisan, 29, has dropped a stone and Michael Bertrand uses Zumba to help with his Aspberger's
Hannah Nisan, 29, from Nottingham, was at the conference having just qualified as Zumba ‘Jammer’ – a select group of instructors who set new choreography for classes across the UK.
She says: ‘I struggled with my weight – I was always a size 14 and at 5ft 1in that’s quite curvy. Going to university and eating badly made things worse.
'Since starting Zumba in May 2011, I have lost more than a stone and I don’t diet – I eat what I like. I did other kinds of dance before this, so I do think there is something unique about the class. I love it.’
The social aspect of Zumba is what Michael Bertrand, 21, believes has helped him the most. Michael, from Boise, Idaho, who has a form of autism called Asperger’s, started taking classes three years ago.
‘Growing up, I never fitted in,’ he says. ‘Getting diagnosed with Asperger’s, well, it felt as if I’d had the word “freak” stamped on my forehead. But the people in my Zumba class accept me. To them I’m not the odd kid or the guy with autism – I’m just Michael. I think I’ve got better in social situations too, as I’m around people more.’
‘I am so thankful that I have found something that allows me to have fun . . . and know that I’m going to be around to take care of my son, and to give my future daughter-in-law a really hard time,’ she yells.
Sass Mahuika, 56, from Gisborne, New Zealand, arrives at the stage in her wheelchair – there was a small yet noticeable number of disabled instructors at the convention.
Nine years ago, Sass was injured when a car ploughed into her while she was walking along the street. ‘I was told I would never walk again,’ she says. After ballooning to about 41st, she was invited by a friend to a mixed-ability Zumba class 18 months ago, attended by some 400 people. She has since lost around half her body weight. ‘They showed me anything is possible,’ she says before standing up and taking a few steps. The crowd goes wild.
Later, while attending yet another mass Zumba event, I watch an impossibly honed troupe of dancers fling themselves around the stage in an unfathomable sequence. How they move their arms and feet so fast while still smiling, I have no idea.
When one of them, Zumba founder Beto Perez, takes off his top off to reveal an impressive six-pack, women in the audience react in way that would make a One Direction fan blush. It’s all pretty daft but jolly good fun.
Beto, 43, has his own theory on why his invention has such wide-ranging health benefits. ‘When I dance, it makes me happy,’ he says. ‘One class for £10 has the same effect as an hour costing £100 with a psychotherapist. It makes me feel good. I’m never sick, I’m never tired. I never even get a cold. When you smile, something positive happens in your body.’
Professor Mark Williams, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry, believes Beto may be on to something. ‘Not taking yourself too seriously is incredibly important for our mental wellbeing. Learning to dance focuses the attention away from any worries, but you also have to forgive yourself for making mistakes, and laugh at yourself.
‘People have real problems, but research has shown that brooding about them too much brings about a cycle of stress and depression that can skew our perspective and make the things that bother us seem even more difficult to deal with.
‘Mindfulness training isn’t about pretending everything is all right but learning to take a step back from whatever is bothering you.
‘After a break, when you come back to thinking about the sources of your worries, they can seem more manageable. This can be very important in the management of many long- term illnesses.’
He believes that Zumba, in all its silliness, may just do the same.
To find a local Zumba Party In Pink event and raise money for breast cancer prevention, visit partyinpink.com.
Toddlers leave with a bounce in their step
For the older and less mobile there is Zumba Gold, while Aqua Zumba takes place – as you’d imagine – in a pool.
Zumba Toning is a class with weights, and Zumbatomic is for children. In the pipeline are Zumba Bursts, a 30-minute high-intensity version, and an as-yet-unnamed class that uses traditional gym equipment.
There’s also a magazine, Z Life, a clothing line (with lots of fluorescent pink and green, it’s not for the faint-hearted) and an interactive video game franchise.
Tiny dancers: Toddlers and their parents at a Zumbini class for babies
Party In Pink is Zumba’s fundraising arm (cue lots more pink accessories) that raises money for the Zumba Global Research Grant for Breast Cancer Prevention.
One of the newest developments is Zumbini for infants up to three years old, and I got to experience a class led by its creator, Ashlee Cramer.
Zumbini is a combination of gentle music and movement (Ashlee has an assembled group of journalists hopping along to the song that goes ‘Bounce-bounce-bounce like a kangaroo!’) with some fun segments that involve bashing drums.
Child psychologist Astrid Axson explains: ‘We now know babies aren’t these blank minds – they think and feel things a long time before they can even speak.
‘Children love to experiment with noise, and making things happen, and doing so is empowering. Activities such as bashing drums helps develop large and fine motor skills. But a class like this, which is social, will also benefit the parent who may not have the facilities or feel they have the imagination to do these things at home.’
For Ashlee, who has made a career in ‘mommy-and-me’ classes, a big plus is that the music is all original, too.
‘I love Itsy Bitsy Spider and Humpty Dumpty, but after the 1,000th time you get a little weary,’ she says.
Oh, and a note to all those attending the conference: if a video of me bounce-bounce-bouncing like a kangaroo while wearing fluorescent Zumba gear ever surfaces . . . well, let’s just say I won’t be a happy bunny. Or kangaroo.
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Author: Shannon Havasi
October 1st 2016
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