Imagine yourself in a gymnasium full of people who are ready to dance, work out, and have some fun. Among the forty or so people in the gym, you happen to recognize a young German woman who is a freshman at your local university, a pregnant Irish woman in her thirties, a Jewish mother in her late fifties, a Chinese great-grandmother, a mother of twins who recently immigrated from the Dominican Republic, and an older white gentleman with limited mobility. As you begin to move with the rhythm, you watch as they dance together, and you see them look over at each other and smile. You see them laugh together. You see them push each other and celebrate their bodies. They may not speak the same languages, worship in the same churches, or share the same experiences, but they all give of themselves in an open way. They all become vulnerable together and embrace each other’s differences and similarities with great care. They leave this community of different genders, races, classes, ages, religions, and ethnicities with new friends and a newfound excitement for their bodies and the world around them.
Doesn’t this sound amazing? Welcome to my beloved community, my church. Welcome to Zumba!
As I explore Zumba, womanism, and the divine in this essay, you might start to feel the rhythm. I invite you to dance with me. I invite you to suspend your immediate desire to sit against the wall or to worry about your inability to dance correctly. If at any point you feel moved, step away from the page. Close your eyes, turn up the music, and dance like no one is watching.
Getting on The Dance Floor
In her choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Ntozake Shange writes that “I found God in myself and I loved her.” This declaration encompasses how I feel every time I teach a Zumba class. Every time I invite people to journey with me through dance, I feel encouraged and uplifted. Every time my students invite me to journey with them through working out, I feel the presence of God.
And as a black woman I have also found that Zumba helps me to take back my body, a body that has been objectified, mistreated, abused, oppressed, oversexualized, and judged merely because of its color and shape. Zumba provides me with an embodied expression of who I am as a woman, a black person, and a theologian. It enables me to invite others to explore and embrace their own identities and journeys, to find sweaty, exciting, messy, and caring partners to share this discovery with. Zumba shows me the beauty and the spirit of womanism and its holistic, transformative potential in the realm of fitness, dance, theology, and life.
When I mention my relationship to Zumba, people either get excited—“I love Zumba! Where do you teach?”—or they attempt to correct me, as if I meant to say yoga. For those of you in that second category, Zumba Fitness is a Latin-and-world-rhythms-based dance fitness workout that combines calorie-burning moves with elements of balance, flexibility, and cardio. It is a workout that combines moments of low and high intensity to boost energy and condition muscles. It brings people together to sweat and have fun. One of the best parts about Zumba is that everyone can do it regardless of size, shape, gender, nationality, religious preference, or age. Zumba mixes various dance rhythms and styles that inspire movement in the bodies of participants, and although there is choreography, one does not have to follow it. All modifications are welcome.
Zumba is my sport. It is my womanist, liberating, noncompetitive, theological sport. In Lincoln Harvey’s book A Brief Theology of Sports, he considers sports and games to be a type of play because they are expressions of freedom within a set of rules. Zumba operates under a single rule—move! Move however your body feels it wants and should move! And while Harvey’s identification of sports as freedom within rules may sound like a contradiction, in the case of Zumba the one rule truly allows for an embodied expression of freedom. This freedom allows the opportunity to receive “reward achievement through varying degrees of physical effort, natural skill, and irreducible luck,” another essential component of sport, according to Harvey. Once a Zumba class is over, I reap the reward of excitement, joy, and energy from accomplishing a feat of physicality. Because of the imperative to move, I am free to embody and to embrace who I am.
Womanism is a term I often use when gushing about the wonder of Zumba. I base my usage of this term on a series of definitions given by the author, poet, and activist Alice Walker in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Walker begins by describing a womanist as “a black feminist or feminist of color” who is “acting grown up,” “in charge,” and “serious.” A womanist is a lover of women and women’s strength who is also “committed to [the] survival and wholeness of [an] entire people, male and female.” In other words, a womanist desires for everyone to thrive in society regardless of their color and gender. According to Walker, a womanist loves dancing and music, the moon and the spirit. “Womanist,” she continues, “is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” We might say that womanism is a passionate, stronger, and more focused form of feminism.
Womanism is committed to honoring the connection of body and life. I live out this commitment through Zumba. For me, this life and body connection arises from a harsh history that is the very foundation of who I am as a black woman. I live and dance against the backdrop of this history.
Remembering the Steps
Dancing is not a new experience for black women. As the historian James Haskins has noted, “music and dance had been an integral part of life back in Africa, associated with religion, with farming, with births and deaths, and weddings and other ceremonies. It had been a way to bring the members of a community together.” During slavery, many enslaved Africans were forced to come to the deck of slave ships for what was considered “exercise” after spending countless hours mashed together in the bottom of the ship. They were often forced to dance with whips so they would appear healthy and fetch a high price at the slave markets. This was what Haskins calls “dancing the slaves.”
There was no freedom in this practice. Slavery stripped away the joy of dancing as well as the dignity, honor, and bodies of these Africans. Theologian M. Shawn Copeland speaks of this passionately in her book Enfleshing Freedom: “Slavery rendered black women’s bodies objects of property, of production, of reproduction, of sexual violence.” In the centuries since then, “black female bodies have continually been defiled, used, and discarded, quite literally, as refuse—simply because they are female and black, black and female.” Just turn on the television to view how Hollywood portrays black women as mistresses, sluts, bitches, amazing professionals with their personal lives in tatters, and harlots incapable of healthy sexual and familial relationships. Black women are still viewed, in many instances, as mouthy, overly complicated, suspicious, and dysfunctional, as sexual or bodily objects of desire, pleasure, and entertainment. Black women are still viewed as incomplete and segmented beings with a brilliant mind here, an impressive vertical jump there, great eyes, big hair. But rarely are black women seen as complete persons. Because they are black and female, black women are often not viewed as whole human beings.
Black women not only experience this type of dismemberment and exploitation from those who do not share their same color and gender, but also from each other. A black woman once told me that I was prettier than my beautiful friend who had a darker hue. This woman told me I was prettier because my skin was lighter, because I had a smaller body size, and because my hair was “good” and curly. I’ve also been compared to and pitted against other beautiful, differently colored and shaped sisters. This has hurt deeply. It has made me feel ashamed of my hair, body, and color. It hurt that society has forced my black sisters to compete with one another when such a competition is unnecessary.
Creating Our Own Steps
I will not pretend that Zumba is the answer to all of the problems black women face, but it can aid us in taking back our black bodies from society’s claim of ownership. We can embrace them as our own, and more significantly, as bodies created in imago dei, that is, in the image of a free, creative, and wonderful Creator. Through this practice, I have begun to see my body as a site of theological reflection, and I have encouraged others to do the same. I have internalized the words of M. Shawn Copeland, who writes, “The body is the medium through which the person as essential freedom achieves and realizes selfhood through communion with other embodied selves.” Through Zumba, I have been able to embrace my beautiful blackness and to encourage others to embrace themselves as beings created imago dei. As Copeland states so powerfully,
To declare “black is beautiful!” states a disregarded theological truth, nourishes and restores bruised interiority, prompts memory, encourages discovery and recovery, stimulates creativity and acknowledges and reverences the wholly Other. To assert, “beauty is black” exorcises the “ontological curse” that consigns the black body to the execrable, and claims ontological space: space to be, space to realize one’s humanity authentically. I am black and beautiful.
The assertion of one’s beauty requires space. This space has to be one in which individuals feel free to be themselves and explore their identities. In contrast to the competition that too commonly results from societal expectations about black women, coming into one’s beauty requires a noncompetitive space. Zumba creates such a space because it asserts that we are beautiful without considering who wins. It does not compare color, body shape, or hair texture. Everyone wins.
While Lincoln Harvey notes that sports often include reward achievement with a definitive winner and loser, it is precisely the noncompetitive quality of Zumba that enables its great rewards: only in a collaborative space of communal affirmation and movement can one experience the freedom and joy of one’s embodiment. Contrary to competitive sports, the more one engages and uplifts others in the group, the more enjoyment one receives. Participants push each other to be better, have fun, sweat more, work harder, and smile more. We celebrate each other for achieving great feats of physicality with style. Zumba defies the competitive connotations of sport, thriving instead on the playful, embodied freedom that rules can afford. Zumba is not a competition to be won but a party to be joined.
I have had several conversations with black women who were initially nervous about Zumba. They were ashamed of their beautiful black bodies. They told me that these feelings stemmed from experiences of rape; domestic violence; military injuries; having children; being in competition with family, friends, coworkers, and church members; and constantly having to appease and take care of everyone else but themselves. Most of these women enjoyed their first Zumba experience and said it was fun. The more they came back, the more it transformed them. They share stories of how Zumba boosted their self-esteem and helped them relieve stress in their lives. They speak of how Zumba helped them work through injuries, deal with the stress and weight gain of becoming a first-time mother, and battle depression. Several women have mentioned that Zumba felt like a prayer to the Divine, an expression of “thank you” for a great gift as amazing as their bodies.
These women have also been pleasantly surprised at how invigorating it is to do Zumba with a community of individuals who support and uplift each other with joy and not in competition. This, for me, is where I see God at work: women helping one another recognize the beauty of their bodies, their inherent imago dei. This is the “beloved community” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of: people from all walks of life coming together to see the beauty and goodness in each other, amid all their differences.
Alongside them, I can affirm that my black body is beautiful, and everyone should be able to affirm their own beauty and body. Zumba allows individuals the freedom to move their bodies as they feel, desire, and want. It allows them to say that their bodies matter, to embrace their bodily joys and hurts, and to share them with others so we can all say, “My curly hair is beautiful, my curvaceous body is beautiful, my big eyes are beautiful—I am beautiful.”
I will close as I begin all my Zumba classes—
Your bodies are all beautiful and amazing. Move them however you feel. There is no wrong way to Zumba as long as you keep moving. You shouldn’t strive to dance like me but to dance like you. Your movement is exquisite, and no one else can do it the way you do. So embrace it, and embrace your dance partners on this journey for the next hour. You deserve this time. Your body deserves this time. Let’s dance!