Zumba & Gender

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.


  1. Katydid says

    I like a lot of different exercise types. I compete in triathlons (running/swimming/bike riding), and for that you need cardio but also muscles. I really enjoy zumba (I am a cishet woman). Before Covid, I went to a gym, and I have also noticed zumba is predominantly female participants, with about 50/50 men/women instructors (now I just slip in one of the six-DVD set from the guy who created zumba and get dancing). I have a full set of weights at home and I’ll explain why in a couple of paragraphs.

    Physically, women tend to have more space between the bottom of their ribs and their pelvis bones, which leads to more flexibility in the hips. Thus the bellydance moves are a bit easier to do (and to be seen) for women. The side-to-side salsa step looks pretty much the same. As you pointed out, the women have more shimmy on top. In a good class, the music is fun and fast and helps get the body moving, and all the hip-swiveling is fantastic for targeting that part of the body that is often neglected in other forms of exercise. I don’t think it’s universal that the women are judging the men or enjoying their awkwardness: I think most women are just trying to get in their own steps correctly.

    As a veteran gym-goer, I have noticed that the group classes tend to pull the women more than the men–aerobics varieties, zumba, yoga, tai chi, spinning, etc. The weight-lifting parts of the gym tend to be monopolized by men. I find lifting weights incredibly boring and repetitive, and–at least in the gyms I’ve been to–there’s always the jerks who demand the women leave so the men can work out. No, just no. The butt-hurt from the men when the women continue using the equipment they pay a gym membership to use can be hilarious.

    The group classes are much less sexist and there’s no waiting around for equipment. In a society where women not only work but also have a lion’s share of the housework and childcare, women are far less interested in sitting around waiting to work out. Continuous motion is also familiar to women whose days are spent racing through a never-ending to-do list, only the dancing is fun, not a chore.

    Unless a woman is going to a specifically-for-women gym (there are some), then the gym experience for them seems designed to make sure they know they’re lesser. In several gyms I’ve gone to over the decades, often the women’s locker room is smaller and lesser than the men’s and often put near the cafe while the men’s is near the weights. The opportunities seem more gendered; for example, one gym I belonged to had twelve handball courts (if they were used at all, they were only used by men) in comparison to one small room shared for aerobics, spinning, yoga, and kickboxing.

  2. Katydid says

    Okay, I read the study whose link you provided.

    Here’s some more insight: European vs. non-European culture. Like many women, I was put in ballet classes when I was a kid, and I hated it. Rows of identically-dressed little girls with identical bodies with identical leotards and identical buns on the head, robotically performing the same positions in unison. If you do it right, and do it long enough, you end up crippled in your 40s. Zumba is more about joyful movement. Want to fling your arms in the air and whoop? Fine, even if nobody else is doing it. If you do it, often the class will cheer you on. Want to add a shoulder shimmy with your hip shimmy? Nobody will mind. Can’t do “jellyfish arms”? If you just bend at the elbows, nobody’s going to give you THAT LOOK, or worse, kick you out of the class.

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