How A Zumba Class Is Changing the Lives of Older Adults

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Zumba classes offer students physical activity made fun and opportunities to connect with others in the community

Zumba Teacher
Grisel Diaz calls out counts to guide her students through the routine. She has been teaching Zumba since 2016.

By Brooke Spach | Photography by John Michael Simpson

The energy in the fluorescent-lit gym grew as people began to file in, the room filling with cheerful greetings between new and old friends. It hit a peak while the students watched their instructor, Grisel Diaz, make her way to the front of the crowd. The back of her shirt read, “Zumba is in my DNA.” She cranked up the music and exclaimed, “It’s a party!”

That Monday evening in mid-May, the class was made up of around 20 people of all skill levels and ages. Infectious smiles spread around the room as the dancers started to warm up to “Boogie Shoes.” Whoops and whistles could be heard over the course of the hourlong class as they danced almost nonstop to songs in both Spanish and English – it was impossible not to join in (as this author did). About halfway through, Oscar Garcia, who teaches Zumba at the Carrboro Town Commons on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., took over and led the class through a handful of songs.

Zumba Class
Oscar Garcia leads the Zumba class for a few songs. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Oscar teaches his own classes at the Carrboro Town Commons.

Zumba classes at the Seymour Center started about 10 years ago. The joint program between the Orange County Department on Aging and the UNC School of Medicine’s Student Health Action Coalition, which operates a clinic and provides free health services to uninsured community members, was a way to encourage Latino patients to utilize the senior center. Before the pandemic hit, classes were held twice a week and featured semimonthly educational programs in Spanish.

Within a week of the COVID-19 lockdown and closure of the Seymour Center, Grisel volunteered to set up a class via Zoom. The Department on Aging used its state-allocated CARES funding to buy equipment to help the virtual classes run smoothly. Two years later, Zumba classes resumed at full capacity on April 18. Myra Austin, the department’s senior centers administrator, says older adults are slowly becoming less apprehensive about being back out in public and interacting with others.

Zumba Class
Sophie Chiba (in overalls), Al-Nisa Berry and Sophie Litwin.

“We’re getting there,” Myra says. “We’re not back to full, but we’re definitely working our way back to pre-pandemic numbers.” She emphasized the importance for older adults to continue getting out and engaging with others, citing the statistic that being socially isolated can cause negative health effects equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. In addition to exercise classes, the senior center hosts game nights, art classes, lectures and special events, like concerts and birthday celebrations. Around 60% of the programs are free and open to the public.

“It’s just important to connect with people, so that’s why we feel like our mission is to help that process along,” she says. “We’re a whole lot more than bingo.” A couple of students in the Zumba class are in their 70s and 80s. While still prioritizing safety, instructors encourage older adults to go at their own pace but give it their all. Oscar says that their commitment to lifelong movement is an inspiration to younger students in the class.

“Zumba saved my life,” says Tahirah Salazar, a student of almost three years. “Here, it’s a family. Everybody knows [you]. [They’re] welcoming. We celebrate.”

Another student, Ana Xet-Mull, has been coming to the class for more than six years. “I’m Latina, from Guatemala, and I love to dance,” she says. “Getting together, having fun and feeling like a community and a group of friends – that’s what you get from here.”

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Brooke Spach

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