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Salsa on steroids: You don't need a partner to dance to a Latin rhythm in a Zumba class.

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Jo Anne Christian, center, moves to the Zumba beat. The workout appeals to a broad spectrum of enthusiasts. Christian serves as chair of the Austin Lyric Opera board.

Sometimes, you've just got to let go.

Forget how you look. Embrace silliness. Dance with abandon, even though your legs clomp like a rhino's and your exercise instructor looks like she belongs on a Carnival float in Rio de Janeiro.

This is one of those times.

"Good luck, because Leigh is on amphetamines," someone whispers to me as Leigh Simmons waltzes into a mirror-walled studio at Tarrytown Dance, cranks up the music and lets fly.

She's really not on drugs, of course, but 5 minutes into the class, I understand the warning.

Simmons' energy never wanes. She twists and moves in ways I just can't. Twenty or so women of varying age — and grace — follow suit, all to the backdrop of spicy, sultry Latin tunes.

This is Zumba, all the buzz in the hip-swishing world that blends dance and exercise. Remember step aerobics? How about Jazzercise?

According to Zumba lore, fitness trainer Beto Perez showed up to teach his aerobics class in Cali, Colombia, in the early 1990s. When he realized he'd forgotten his music track, he reached into his backpack and pulled out some salsa and merengue. He quickly improvised his own Latin-infused aerobics-style class, which became an instant hit.

Perez brought the concept to the United States, and in 2001 he formed a company and started spreading the Zumba gospel.

Since then, Zumba has been featured in an infomercial and on boxes of Kellogg's Special K cereal. There's a Zumba website, a Zumba magazine and an upcoming Zumba week at Club Med in Ixtapa, Guerrero.

The Zumba motto? "Ditch the workout, join the party."

Worldwide, Zumba officials say the classes, which include a kid-friendly version and an in-pool version, are being taught at more than 60,000 locations in 105 countries. In Austin, nearly 100 gyms, recreation centers and offices offer Zumba.

Here at Tarrytown Dance, Simmons has pumped up the volume. She's shimmying and shaking to the likes of Daddy Yankee and Ganga Zumba. For the next hour, we work our way through Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias, then strut to some Shakira.

She melds hip-hop and disco, then tosses in a little salsa. It's about 70 percent Latin music, and pretty soon I'm channeling those old Harry Belafonte records my dad used to play.

"Good job! Let's keep on going!" she shouts. "Let's salsa! And cha cha here!"

After 30 sweaty minutes, the group breaks for a quick sip of water.

"It's the best form of exercise I have ever done," Susan Parker pants. "And I have done them all. I have found my home."

Then it's back to the dance party. The students, all women today, swivel their shoulders, wag their booties, wave their arms. I continue my impersonation of a water buffalo. But I'm getting a great workout, and that's the point. It reminds me of my college days, when we'd turn out the lights in the dorm room, pop in a cassette and start gyrating.

It's all-over exercise, with no core, arm, leg or glute left behind. No experience is needed, either, although a dance background would likely reduce the humiliation factor.

"It doesn't matter how you wiggle, just wiggle," Simmons, 46, eggs the class on. She's been teaching dance — everything from ballet and tap to jazz, hip-hop and contemporary — for 31 years and running this studio since 2002. In October, it will move to a larger space once occupied by Tarrytown Pharmacy across the street.

Some of the students wear special "jazz sneakers," designed to support the foot like running shoes while allowing easy spins and turns.

For some, the class is all about the music. For others, it's the dance.

"You have to learn the songs to keep up with your grandchildren," Vicki Rado tells me, then starts moving with gusto.

Anne Giles, 63, considers Zumba stress relief because it takes all her concentration. "When I'm here, I think about nothing but what I am doing. Otherwise, I'd fall down," she says. "Even in yoga, I'm always, ‘Uh oh, I better return that call' or ‘What's for dinner.' "

Julie Crenshaw, 46, wife of golfer Ben Crenshaw, says she's a Zumba addict. "We laugh the whole time," she says. "It doesn't matter whether you're coordinated or not."

Simmons got certified to teach Zumba and began offering the classes two years ago. "We thought we'd pull in some people who say they're not coordinated and get them excited about dance," she says.

Since then she's expanded from one Zumba class a week to four, and might add another. The classes draw mostly women, but men are invited. Most are in their 30s, 40s or 50s.

"You get to move your hips, and it's more in keeping with what today's dance is like," Simmons says.

After nearly an hour, the dance attack is over, and the students grab hand weights for an extra bonus Simmons throws in — 15 minutes of light weights and stretching. A ceiling fan swirls overhead, helping to staunch the flow of sweat.

"This is so much better than yoga. Nothing cerebral," Dana Dean says as class winds down.

And then I learn about one more reason to Zumba.

"Guess what? We can eat anything we want now!" someone yells.

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If you go ...

Tarrytown Dance, 2414 Exposition Blvd., offers Zumba classes at 8:30 a.m. Monday and Wednesday and 9:30 a.m. Thursday and Saturday. Ten-class punch card for $140; drop-in fee $20 per class. For more information about Zumba, go to www.zumba.com .

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994