Instructor Autumn Michaelis leads a class in Zumba Dance, which uses salsa, cha cha, cumbia and other Latin rhythms for exercise.

Aerobics con salsa

"Ditch the workout; join the party," says Autumn Michaelis. She is wearing an electric pink top and black tights as she stretches her legs and adjusts a cordless headset microphone.

The 26-year-old Central Point woman is about to begin teaching a Zumba class in the brightly lit aerobics studio of the Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford. Zumba is one of the latest fitness crazes to sweep the country, one that combines traditional aerobics with Latin rhythms and dance steps.

"Zumba attracts people with a dance background, but it's not necessary," says Michaelis. "It's an aerobic class based on the music of merengue, cumbia, cha cha, salsa and reggaeton (a new hybrid dance step that combines reggae and hip-hop).

When the wall clock reads 5:30 p.m., Michaelis turns to face the after-work group of six women and two men on this Tuesday evening — a small group. The class averages 10 to 15 students. Michaelis leads her students through five minutes of warm-up stretches, then she strides to a boom box and presses play. An infectious, insistent merengue tune blasts through the speaker.

Michaelis demonstrates the dance steps slowly for the first routine. She thrusts her leg to the side, swivels her hips, and the class does its best to keep up with the fast two-step. After a few times through, most people have it down, and the workout begins.

"It gets easier," says Anne Lindauer, who has been attending these classes at the YMCA for three months. Before moving to the Rogue Valley, the 30-year-old Gold Hill woman took Zumba classes in Los Angeles. She learned about Zumba on an infomercial and purchased a DVD. She was hooked.

"I love all kinds of dancing," Lindauer adds.

Zumba has a specific formula for the one-hour workout, and instructors must be certified. In this formula, the same set of dance steps is repeated for the verse of a song, a different set for the chorus. By alternating the moves, Zumba develops different muscles.

The trademarked Zumba system is the brainchild of Colombian dancer and celebrity fitness trainer Alberto "Beto" Perez and two Miami entrepreneurs. As Perez tells it, he forgot his aerobic music tapes for a class one day in the mid-1990s. All he had in his car was Latin dance music. He used those tapes for his class, and the students loved it. Today, more than 20,000 instructors have been certified to teach Zumba.

After another merengue and two cha-cha numbers, the Medford class takes a one-minute breather and water break.

"(Zumba is) so much more intense than step aerobics," says Cindy Warwick, of Gold Hill. "It took me three weeks to keep up with this class — stamina-wise. I cycle, power walk, ski. Nothing compares to the different muscle groups you use in this class."

Warwick has been attending class for two months. After having participated in dance and cheerleading as a teenager, the 46-year-old again enjoys making dance a part of her life. The Tuesday and Thursday classes also are convenient for her schedule, she says.

"I get off work at 5 o'clock, so it gives me a chance to come over after work," Warwick explains.

At the 55-minute mark, Michaelis punches in a slow tune and begins leading the class through a series of squats, toe-touches and shoulder stretches. The students, in varying degrees of dampness, breathe deeply as they cool down.

"This is good practice for club dancing. When you're out on the town, you'll know Latin dance moves," says Michaelis, chatting with students as they leave the studio.

Randy Leidich couldn't agree more. The 55-year-old Ruch resident has been attending class every Tuesday since September.

"Some of it is difficult; some of it is OK," says Leidich. "If I ever try to dance for real, my feet will know what to do."

For more information, visit www.zumba.com/us/about or call the Rogue Valley Family YMCA at 772-6295.

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