Zumba is the world’s largest dance fitness program. I’ve been doing it remotely since the start of the pandemic, actually because my mother runs a small class. I’ve also seen her participate in larger classes, where it’s clear that just about all of the participants are women.
I once observed that the exception seemed to be the instructors, who were much more likely to be men. I asked my mother if this was a common pattern. No, she said. It’s only that she personally preferred male instructors, because their classes tended to be less sexualized.
I can see why Zumba isn’t very popular among men. It doesn’t align with the male norm of exercising alone. Dancing is also incredibly gendered, and the popularity of Zumba among women means that there are a lot of distinctly feminine dance steps, often sexualized. For example, a lot of the hip bopping and belly dancing strikes me as feminine, and then there are moves that appear to assume more weight in my upper chest than I actually have. There are also a few moves I perceive as masculine, but when it’s performed by a class full of women it just feels like a form of gender play.
I’ve found online accounts of men doing Zumba, and they often talk about overcoming restraints, and freeing themselves. Responses to these articles tend to be very congratulatory, because everyone knows how super hard it is to be a straight man, but they shall overcome! But for serious, I sympathize, because though I don’t have quite the same hangups with masculinity, Zumba conflicts with another aspect of my personal image. That is, I’m a nerd who historically has not been interested in exercise, much less dancing to pop music.
On that note, I found a sociology article on gender in Zumba:
“All about having fun: Women’s experience of Zumba fitness” by Tanya Nieri and Elizabeth Hughes (2016).
In this paper, Nieri and Hughes explore the experiences of Zumba participants using 41 (!) interviews with women in southern California. The introduction situates the study by discussing the gender inequality promoted by healthism and the fitness industry.
First, it negatively affects women’s self-concept by reinforcing body dissatisfaction (MacNevin, 2003; Markula, 1995; Prichard and Tiggeman, 2005). Second, it is repetitive, mindless, and creativity-stifling, generating women as automatons (Kagan & Morse, 1988; MacNeill, 1988). Third, it disempowers women, casting them as sexual objects, promoting unrealistic body standards and narrow forms of femininity that privilege slim, hard, and white bodies over others, and fostering competition between women (Greenleaf, McGreer, & Parham, 2006; Kagan & Morse, 1988; Lloyd, 1995; Maguire & Mansfield, 1998).
However, feminist scholars have also argued for positive effects of group fitness among women. It promotes strength and action, things that are not conventionally considered feminine. Many women see it as taking charge of their health, rather than pursuing a beauty standard.
The interviewees largely describe Zumba as different from other forms of fitness, because it emphasizes fun and personal expression instead of fitness and mechanical conformity. There are some truly glowing reviews of Zumba in here; I can’t say that I personally enjoy Zumba quite this much. But I broadly agree about its advantages. I like that nobody questions me when I dance at half speed or sit out songs (I have asthma you know), and hammy dance moves are fun sometimes.
Personal expression in Zumba sometimes takes the form of gendered, sexualized moves. The women feel it’s a safe space where they can do it for fun without it meaning anything. One interviewee said,
it’s like everyone is getting really sweaty, and they are really gross and trying to be sexy, and that is kind of goofy.
Of course, there are occasionally men in these classes, and the interviewees had different views on that matter. A few expressed discomfort with male participants, but most felt it was sufficient that it was predominantly women, and still others saw it as a gender neutral space. One person explicitly said they were more comfortable with gay men than straight men, a viewpoint that is understandable but one I’m not fond of. (In my experience it’s accompanied by assumptions of what gay men are like, and it’s not great for men who are neither straight nor gay.) I didn’t see any interviewees echo my mother’s preference for a less sexualized, mixed gender space, but it seems like a reasonable preference so I’m sure it’s not unheard of.
The bit that most surprised me was hearing women say that they thought men were awkward in Zumba, and that they enjoyed feeling like they were better at it than the men. I don’t think I’m “bad” at Zumba, but I really wouldn’t mind if I were, and it pleases me that other participants might get a kick out of it if they saw me doing it poorly. We all take our joy where we can.
I looked up the authors and found another paper:
“Zumba Instructor Strategies: Constraining or Liberating for Women Participants?” by Tanya Nieri & Elizabeth Hughes (2021).
I haven’t had time to read this one yet, but I might read it later. I found the first article interesting and wholesome. Granted, the study may have sampling biases, but by all accounts this looks like an activity that people actually enjoy, and I’m happy for that.