Health & Family

Dash of salsa in the gym

You feel it in the pit of your stomach first: a thumping Latin beat that makes your insides shake and your heel start tapping.

But by the end of the hour, you feel Zumba everywhere: your heaving lungs, your pulsing stomach muscles, your swinging shoulders.

Zumba is a hot fusion of Latin dance and floor aerobics, and it's hitting fitness clubs and YMCAs and recreation centers in many cities, including the Charlotte region, where it's offered at area YMCAs and health clubs.

Invented in Colombia in the 1990s when aerobics instructor Beto Perez forgot his music and had to use the salsa tapes he had in his car, Zumba invaded the United States in 1999. It's not quite a dance class, not quite aerobics, but something very fast-paced and hip-heavy in between.

The moves are Latin-inspired, sometimes downright sexy and fun to do and watch.

“The Zumba class is like exercise plus having fun,” said 45-year-old Eleanor Trice of Garden City, Mich., who started taking Zumba in January as something to do with her two sisters. They've stuck with it ever since. “I love it. You sweat. It's a very good workout.”

In practice, Zumba is like an interval workout, said instructor Debbie Lim: You alternate high impact with low, and the enforced breaks of a couple of seconds between songs give people a chance to rest briefly.

Steven Keteyian, program director of preventive cardiology at Henry Ford Hospital, said the classes are appropriate for men younger than 40-45 and women younger than 50-55 who don't have any health risks.

If you're older or have conditions such as back pain, osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, history of stroke or heart disease, you know the drill. Check with your doctor first.

Participants agree: Zumba is a killer workout. But they say it's not like a straightforward, hard-core high-impact aerobics or kickboxing class.

“It doesn't feel like you're working out,” Fera said. She buys steel for an auto supplier. “Everyone at my day job makes fun of me because I'm always cha-chaing around. I feel really good, and I have a lot more energy.”