Meshugah for Zumba

At age 54, Esther Goldberg has danced in front of 46,000 people at a sold-out Phillies game and behind a casino bar wearing little more than a see-through mesh shirt over a sparkly bra.

This is what Zumba can do to an otherwise mild-mannered masseuse and yoga instructor from Northeast Philadelphia.

If you haven’t heard about Zumba yet, Goldberg and more than 500 other certified instructors located within 25 miles of Philadelphia’s Center City will clamor to tell you how the Latin-inspired dance fitness phenomenon can not only get you in shape but truly change your life.

As Goldberg put it, “You never know where it will take you.”

Sound a little cultish? It is.

I can say that because I, too, fell prey to the Zumba addiction and have been teaching it since February 2010.

Since there’s nothing inherently Jewish about Zumba, I hadn’t considered it newsworthy for the Jewish Exponent until a fellow instructor began ticking off names of members of the tribe among our ranks.

Her point was confirmed a few months later when I posted a query for Jewish instructors on our Philly Zumba Instructor Network Facebook group. Fifteen people responded, generating a string of more than 40 comments that included lots of “oys” and a suggestion to form a Jewish burlesque group.

Short of these anecdotes, there’s no data to indicate whether Jews comprise an unusually high share of Zumba enthusiasts. But there’s also no denying how much this fitness frenzy has reached into our local Jewish community.

Aside from Jews who have made Zumba part of their weekly routine, at least six area synagogues have added classes to their lineup of community programs. A few teachers have even given it a Jewish twist, infusing Israeli music, Yiddish humor and their background in folk dancing to guide participants through the moves.

Although Zumba seems to be a relatively recent fad in the Northeast, it’s been around in other parts of the country for years. A crowd of more than 6,000 instructors will mark its 10th anniversary at a sold-out convention this weekend in Orlando, Fla.

Of course, Zumba has evolved quite a bit since 2001, when creator Beto Perez, a Colombian aerobics instructor living in Miami, pulled out some salsa music he had in his backpack as a desperate substitution for the formatted fitness tracks he’d forgotten.

In 2005, Perez began licensing instructors to bring his format to their local health clubs. Instructor training and classes began cropping up in the Philadelphia area about three years ago, according to fitness professionals.

By now, Zumba has morphed into a kind of international cultural showcase, with 12 million people taking classes in 110,000 locations around the world, according to the company’s website.

Goldberg found Zumba, with its loud, quick, “out there” moves, a perfect counterbalance to the other forms of dance and yoga she’d been teaching since she was a teenager. What started as one class at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa., quickly expanded to four, not counting the yoga she was already teaching there.

“People like to move their bodies but often feel like they can’t dance since they didn’t have training or they feel self-conscious,” Goldberg said. With catchy music and repetitive steps, “Zumba eliminates that.”

Because of the Jewish setting, Goldberg continued, it’s easy to throw in “Hava Nagila” or other Jewish songs, talk about upcoming holidays or joke about how much everyone ate at Chanukah.

“My name is so Jewish, it’s like I’m more comfortable fitting in,” Goldberg explained. “It’s like heimische. Especially if they are members of the synagogue, it’s like, ‘Wow, I can come to my synagogue and work out, it’s here.’ “

The phenomenon represents a shift for synagogues wanting to be seen as community centers, not only houses of worship, said Adath Jeshurun’s executive director, Robert Friedman.

“We’re here anyway, so why not have the building open for different community needs,” he said. “We like to think that it helps us when people come here and have a good feeling: ‘I bring my kid for preschool and I play mahjongg and I do Zumba, yeah, maybe I should join here.’ “

Growing up, instructor Donna Harris just wanted to dance on Broadway.

“My Jewish mother wouldn’t hear of it,” said Harris, 62.

So instead, she attended Temple University and became a teacher. After retiring in 2008, the “frustrated dancer” finally got her chance to cut loose.

“While many of my friends went to Hadassah meetings, knitting circles and mahjongg games, I was Zumba-ing like there was no tomorrow,” said Harris, of Northeast Philadelphia.

The best part, she said, was seeing the older population she targeted coming out of their shells during class.

“Whatever is going on in their lives,” Harris said, “Zumba helps them deal with it.”

She can relate to that. Instead of dwelling on ailments that threatened to slow her down—cervical cancer, depression, a non-malignant brain tumor, emphysema and severe hearing loss—she concentrated on dancing.

Darcy Silvers, a copywriter and instructor from Holland, Pa., said she wouldn’t be surprised if the fact that she grew up listening and dancing to Hebrew songs made her quicker to hop on the Zumba bandwagon. Plus, she said, the format is similar to Israeli dancing—both associate each part of a song with a unique movement.

“To me it’s like perfect because I get paid to exercise,” Silvers said, adding that it’s also a great way for women approaching menopause like her to help stave off weight gain and other side effects that come with that stage of life.

Silvers, 52, incorporates Israeli music in all of her classes—including those at three Curves gyms—but she saves expressions like “No schleppers allowed!” and “Shake your tushies!” for her synagogue group. Around Chanukah last year, she choreographed a routine to the Yeshiva University a cappella group Maccabeats’ “Candlelight.”

As much as she loves Zumba, Silvers said, it troubles her that synagogues seem more interested in starting Zumba programs than Israeli folk dancing.

She’s not the only avid folk dancer among the Philly Zumba clan. Silvers and another instructor, Beth Ladenheim, also 52, still frequent folk dancing almost every week, and a handful of their fellow dancers attend Zumba classes, too.

In folk dancing, Ladenheim said, the choreography tends to be more intricate and less athletic. She wanted to sweat, and Zumba certainly made that happen.

“As someone who loves to dance but not exercise, it seemed like a godsend to me during a time when I was desperately trying to lose weight.”

Though Zumba classes tend to attract mostly women, men are specifically banned from the sessions Ladenheim holds at Lower Merion Synagogue and Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, two Orthodox synagogues.

For Orthodox women who don’t belong to coed gyms for modesty reasons, “they would never do this anywhere else,” Ladenheim explained. “I kind of feel like I’m doing a service by going into the synagogue and giving them an opportunity to do something that everybody else is doing.”

Student Beth Gottfried said the class probably played a role in her losing 10 pounds since last fall. Aside from the fact that she can’t attend other classes where men might show up, Gottfried, 52, said it was just convenient to have an option at her shul, where she could see friends and meet other Jewish women.

“There was no pressure to be perfect, you could mess up and nobody would judge you,” she said.

Students point out that the synagogue classes tend to attract an over-40 crowd, which makes it less intimidating than a gym full of young, athletic exercisers. But there are plenty of younger Jews in the mix, too, like myself and 27-year-old Nicole MacDonald, an instructor from Willow Grove.

“Zumba doesn’t judge based on age, weight, gender,” MacDonald said. “It’s for everyone.”

Kate Nolt, a fitness consultant seeking a doctorate in kinesiology at Temple University, said she expects interest in Zumba will eventually die down like other fitness trends. Still, she agreed with Goldberg, who insisted that “there’s too many people who love it and instructors who love it” for it to disappear soon.

Zumba seems to have reached a new level of fun compared with other workouts, Nolt said.

“It really does touch to the core of a lot of people,” Nolt said. “Some people may not go onto a dance floor at a bar mitzvah or even a wedding, but in Zumba they’re in a room with a whole bunch of people exercising and it feels really good. They’re dancing, but it doesn’t even feel like a workout.”

Not only does Zumba improve posture and figure, Ladenheim says, the social nature of it “leaves you feeling happy and wanting more movement instead of more cake.”

Or, in my case, more movement and more cake.

The Novice

It is called Pilates, and I had been hearing about it for some time but dismissed it as a faddish ’90s workout. It fit the mold perfectly: It had the requisite exotic name (pronounced puh-LAH-tees), you had to go to a gym to do it, and celebrities hailed it as a miracle workout that managed, with perfect ’90s perversity, to give shapely women the bodies of 12-year-old boys.

Pilates, I had heard, involved archaic equipment with names like “the reformer” and “the barrel,” but that was about all I knew when I arrived at TriBeCa Bodyworks, a Pilates studio on Duane Street, determined to see if my bias was well-founded. A model-thin woman blew by me, a single line of sweat dripping down her radiant cheek. Great. I hated the place already.

Alycea Baylis-Ungaro, the owner of the studio, had instructed me to bring loose clothing and to wear socks. No sneakers were necessary.

Showing me to the changing room, she whispered, “Even men do Pilates. We get a lot of them.” It is true. During my workouts at least one-third were men. Besides, there is, as I soon learned, nothing feminine about Pilates.

The exercise method was invented by a man, Joseph Pilates, a boxer and physical therapist from Germany. Obsessed with body conditioning, he developed the framework for Pilates while serving as a nurse during World War I. So that patients could exercise in bed, he redesigned a hospital bed and developed simple exercises. Modern Pilates apparatus relies on the use of springs to provide resistance, much like weights, but easier on the body. He opened the first Pilates Studio in the United States in New York City in 1926.

A workout developed that long ago, when athletes smoked and tennis players wore long pants? Still, I signed up for three one-hour Pilates sessions. The first, Alycea said, would just be introductory. For $65, she would lead me through the fundamental exercises. Later sessions would get more intense, Alycea promised, at $55 a session. A bargain! I could not quite believe I was handing over this much money to exercise. I am a reasonable person. I live near a park. I own a pair of sneakers. Why not just put them on and run around the park?

The reason became clearer with each exercise. Alycea took me to the Reformer, a long, low, bedlike apparatus with a flat, padded carriage that slid back and forth the length of the bed. It made a dentist’s chair look friendly. Alycea had me lie face up on the carriage, with my knees bent and my feet on a raised steel bar at the end of the apparatus. I was to straighten my legs as I pulled in my stomach.

The carriage, which is set on three long springs, was difficult to slide out, then snapped back against the end of the apparatus with a loud “Bang!” that echoed through the studio. Heads turned. Alycea did not look pleased. The next time, I was told, do it smoothly, no banging. And I was told to stop arching my back. Pilates exercises are designed to protect and strengthen the back.

“The more distance you put between your belly button and your spine, the more pressure you put on your back,” Alycea said.

By changing the position of my feet on the steel bar and pushing, I worked different muscle groups in my legs while working my stomach muscles.

“It’s a real New York workout because it’s really efficient,” Alycea said. “You have to use all your muscles at once.” And you get it all in a neat and snappy 60 minutes.

We moved on to more complex movements, my least favorite being the “hundreds.” Lying face up on the Reformer, I had to raise my feet six inches, suck in my stomach, squeeze my buttocks together and, holding a stirrup set on springs in each hand, keep my arms at my sides and bounce them up and down, 100 times. With so many details to focus on, you hardly feel the pain.

I was beginning to understand why Mr. Pilates called his workout contrology. For every exercise that focuses on strengthening muscle, another stretches the body and encourages balance. And each movement – whether a derivative of the sit-up with legs jutting in the air, or lying flat and pulling on leather harnesses attached to springs – involves stabilizing the core of the body, the torso and buttocks, while moving the arms or legs. (This is the part that appeals to women: The movements are small and repetitions are short, so you tone muscle without bulking up.)

After about a half hour on the Reformer, Alycea introduced me to the Cadillac, which looked a lot like a gurney with harnesses and pulleys. After more stomach exercises, including sit-ups and leg lifts, Alycea had me lie on my back and put my feet into the harnesses. With my feet above my head and my back raised off of the mat, I was hung like a side of beef. Then, using my stomach muscles, I had to pull my body down to the mat against the resistance of the springs, curling my spine, vertebra by vertebra. It felt as if I was stretching every bone in my back. But there was no pain. Instead, I felt stress ebbing until it was gone. I could have done it all day.

But that was not the best part. Alycea had me sit up and stretch to touch my toes while she pushed and rubbed my back. I was forgetting about the $65.

I left my first session with my stomach muscles dazed and confused, but I was still troubled that I had not broken a sweat. But when I arrived for my second session, Alycea reminded me that the Reformer workout did not get longer, it got faster.

“And that’s where the aerobics come in,” she said.

And did they ever. I was more relaxed with the machines and my movements became smoother and faster. But when I slowed down, I heard about it.

At most Pilates gyms, you do individual sessions with a personal trainer to learn the movements – there are more than 500 – until you get up to pace. After about 30 sessions, you can advance to what is called a duet – two people with a trainer – then to groups of three and four.

I had never employed a personal trainer, but I found that having one by my side was surprisingly comforting. I liked having someone there to coddle me while I suffered through the workout. Besides, it is far too easy and tempting to cheat with Pilates.

What is extraordinary about Pilates is its broad appeal. Some professional dancers do it to maintain flexibility and stay fit without adding excess stress to their bodies. And unlike running or aerobics, Pilates is good for the elderly, people with injuries, and even pregnant women.

“They do it right up to delivery,” Alycea said.

As for me, Pilates was a revelation. I had not realized how tight my muscles had become working in an office, slouching over a computer keyboard. By the third session, I was a convert. I was getting the aerobic workout I wanted while regaining some of the flexibility I had lost.

But if I start to get that 12-year-old boy look, I just may have to ease off. For a while, anyway.

Attention mouse potatoes: There is more to physical activity online than the baseball scores at www.ESPN.comIn fact, there are a host of sites devoted to fitness, providing health advice, exercise tipsand even some interactive options that help you plan and optimize your workouts. As with allthings online, what you find depends on what you are looking for.

For those unsure about whether to start a fitness program, most fitness Web sites have toolscalled calculators, which can approximate a user’s ideal weight, body fat and caloric intake.Just enter some basic information (age, height, weight, waist size, etc.) and the online calculatorwill tell you, basically, whether other people with numbers like yours tend to be healthy or need some more exercise. Of course, only a doctor can tell you what you should do for your body, but these calculators and the Web sites below can point you in the right direction.

Magazine-style Web sites like Phys and OnHealth offer the kind of health and fitness articles you might find on the newsstand. With features like “Healthy Horoscopes,” “Summer Shape Up,” sweepstakes and polls, Phys ( is the most entertaining ofthe fitness sites and, not surprisingly, provides links to affiliated magazines like Vogue and Glamour., which operates as part of WebMD, has more in the way of medical advice, with food, fitness and alternative medicine columnists, along with daily health-related “chats.”

Already involved in a fitness program or ready to get serious about your workout? FitnessLink ( is an inspirational mix of health advice and workout tips, with features like an Exercise Encyclopedia to help focus your exercise routine to suit your goals. Both FitnessLink and a similar site called FitLinxx ( offer real personalized fitness data. Join one of these sites (they’re free) and enter your workout information, such as the amount of weight lifted or number of situps. Your Workout Notebook will keep track of your fitness goals and how close you are to reaching them. The FitLinxx site also has fun stuff like the number of ice-cream cones you have worked off, along with charts and graphs of your progress.

There are even Jewish fitness sites. Jewish Health ( presents mostly health advice for parents, but also offers helpful information on topics like the mental health benefits of Jewish rituals and diseases for which Jews are at increased risk. To really get in shape in a Jewish way,the online Jewish bookstore Sefer Safari contains a link to a Jewish fitness program called Chai-Bo (“Wearing sneakersand loose fitting workout apparel, face east towards Jerusalem…”). The Israeli martial art fitness program Krav Maga has its own extensive Web site, where for a fee users with fast connections can watch live and archived Krav Maga classes and chat with a virtual trainer.

This is only a surface-scratching look at the fitness options available on the Internet. Whatever your goals for improving your health, there is probably a Web site that can help you reachthem. So get off your tush and go surfing.