Port Townsend’s Kris Nelson is part of the team teaching dance fitness classes online. (Diane Urbani de la Paz)

Port Townsend’s Kris Nelson is part of the team teaching dance fitness classes online. (Diane Urbani de la Paz)

DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Letting the music move you

TODAY BRINGS THE 230th live-streamed dance-fitness class put out there by courageous women in our community.

It all began in late March: hip-shaking, heart-pumping frolic for anybody in need of it. But before I go into the details about this particular fitness genre, let me touch on spiritual mechanics.

Dancing, I shed tension like so many dead leaves. One good cumbia, and I’m light as air.

Cumbia is one of the foundational rhythms in Zumba, the international fitness craze. Unlike performative dance, the focus is on how it feels, not how it looks, with “just keep moving; don’t worry about the steps” as the mantra. Over the past decade I’ve joined Zumba classes with people of all sizes and shades in Port Angeles, Sequim, San Francisco, Charleston, S.C., Santa Fe, N.M., and New York City. In 2017, to my delight, I found Zumba at the Port Townsend Community Center, a five-minute walk from my front door.

Now the dance instruction is even closer: in the living room. When the pandemic closed the community center, Zumba queen Kris Nelson sprang into action, organizing classes on Zoom. She posted the portals on Facebook along with a link for optional donations, worked out the technological bugs, and onward they came: Zumba classes online, seven days a week. Now as then, Nelson and her team of certified instructors — from Port Townsend and from the Twisters gym in Port Hadlock — are determined to keep dancing.

These women already work full-time. Nelson operates three restaurants, and until she can find and hire cooks who can take the heat, she’s working in the sweltering kitchens. Instructor Lindsay Laughlin is a medical technician at Jefferson Healthcare; Shanta Corra, whose young son sometimes darts past while she’s teaching, is a sign language interpreter who travels around Washington state. Bailey Burkhartsmeier is yet another teacher made of azucar and steel: She works as a cook in the morning and a server in the evening at an ultra-popular pub. She leads three Zumba classes weekly from her home. Since the start of the all-Zoom era, she’s memorized verses and choreography to add more than two dozen new songs to her repertoire.

But Zumba isn’t just about the choreography. It is about giving ourselves an hour to let the music in — to wash away uptightness. Beto Perez, a choreographer and Colombian immigrant who taught aerobics in Miami, Fla., invented this fitness regimen. The seeds for his subsequent empire were salsa, merengue and reggaeton: rhythms from home. Since Zumba’s inception circa 2001, instructors around the world have stirred in dance moves from across the Caribbean, Africa, India, the Middle East, Spain and Brazil.

All of the above moves free the body and mind. They bring a moment of liberation, just as they did for people across the Americas who danced them centuries ago. The dances make the heart pound; they turn loose cleansing sweat. It’s only natural that these moves have survived.

With their repeating steps and irresistible rhythms, Zumba classes gave me the confidence to participate in salsa, African, Brazilian and Caribbean dance sessions at big-city dance studios. “Shake off the chains that bind you in your life,” the leader of an Afro-Haitian class, Adia Whitaker, told her students before leading us across the floor in a fierce, swooping line.

Brazilian teacher Cida Vieira put it another way: “The invitation,” she said, “is to reclaim your body.”

Port Townsend’s own Burkhartsmeier recently posted a picture of a robot on Facebook, perhaps alluding to these technology-laden days. Beckoning us to her Tuesday morning Zumba class, she wrote: “Reboot all systems. Initiate booty-shaking.”


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Sept. 2.

Reach her at [email protected]

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