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Courtesy YJCC

Zumba is not just fun.

“It’s also a hidden workout,” says Melissa Avalo, Zumba instructor at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township.

Missy, as she is known to her students, makes no secret of her love for the fitness craze.

“It clears your mind, it’s good for your heart, you lose all your stress – and you do it to great music. It’s a big dance party,” she said.

“I see the faces of the students glowing, enjoying the music,” she said. “Even if they don’t get all the moves, or it’s too intense, they can always do it to their own level.”

Her students, she said, range in age from 10 to 80, and include men as well as women, although – say all instructors – Zumba seems to attract mostly women.

“Men prefer instructors who are fitness-based,” Avalo suggested. “With women, you use more hip and belly dancing.”

In her three classes at the YJCC – she teaches at outside venues, as well – she sees between 25 and 40 people at each session. The instructor attributes the growing popularity of Zumba to the fact that it combines both fun and fitness.

Some students, she said, have told her they have begun to lose weight after starting Zumba classes. Others have noted reduced cholesterol, less stress, and help with their diabetes.

While she is happy to hear this, Avalo points out that Zumba should be part of a cross-training regimen – including, for example, weight training.

“Like anything else,” she said, “you should do it three times a week together with something else.”

She said she begins each session by announcing that people who are not initially comfortable should talk to the instructor about modifying the routine, or should just march in place and watch.

“Watch your form and use your muscles,” she said. “It takes a couple of classes to get your groove on and get a better workout.” Routines, she said, include interval training – alternating fast and slow rhythms – as well as resistance training.

Finding a compatible instructor is a big part of Zumba-love, say some students.

“Missy’s classes are creative,” said student Cathy Gordon of Emerson. “The class at the YJCC is like being with family week after week. I’ve been taking her classes for 2 1/2 years. It’s a great start to the day.”

Deb Casaz of Woodcliff Lake waxes equally enthusiastic.

“I had always wanted to try it, and when the Y had a charity event where you took a Zumba class and the proceeds went to charity, I had to do it. Since that day, I became hooked. Everyone is a different age with different abilities, but we are all there to have healthy fun. I feel truly blessed that I can begin my day dancing.”

Fellow YJCC instructor Lisa Salerno says she gears her classes “to what the crowd needs. They follow me, but do their own thing.”

“Everyone is different,” she said. “You have to listen to your body. For example, some may have knee or back issues.”

Salerno pointed out that since “80 to 90 percent of the music is Spanish music, if you don’t like that, you won’t like Zumba.” Steps such as the meringue, salsa, or cumbia [toe tap] “get your heart rate up and down.”

“There are no mistakes in Zumba – not in my class,” she said. “I make the moves simple and easy to follow. I may have three moves in the whole routine.”

Salerno said that while the Zumba gold class, for seniors, “does not have too much bouncing, jumping, or high intensity, it’s still a good workout.”

At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, Zumba classes are “packed,” said Barbara Marrott, the facility’s fitness director. The demand for the class continues to be high since it was introduced several years ago, she said, estimating that nearly 150 students participate in one class or another.

“During weekdays, we have women from 30 to 75,” she said, “with a couple of men sprinkled in.” Sometimes, high school students join the mix.

“We used to have Zumba gold,” said Marrott, pointing out that the class is no longer offered as a separate unit. “But so many people just loved Zumba, they started going to all the classes. So we took the ‘gold’ off [the name]. People can modify it – that’s what they’re doing anyway.”

Speaking to the class’s popularity, she said, “The music is very upbeat and the moves are not so difficult that people can’t grasp them. There’s no equipment. You’re not getting out weights and bands. It’s just you.”

“I tell people to try everything in life twice,” said Marrott. “There are all types of abilities in there, with people moving in the way they can move. It’s a big group of people doing their own thing.”

Shelley Levy, director of the Kaplen JCC’s Guttenberg Center for Special Services, said she has been doing Zumba with participants in the center’s adult day program for at least three years. “It started as Zumba with modifications,” she said. “Now it’s full-scale Zumba without any modifications.”

The class, which meets twice a week, serves 15 young adults, in their mid-20s to 30s, with a range of developmental disabilities. “They’ve clearly improved in physical fitness and in following directions,” said Levy, noting improvements, as well, in fine and gross motor coordination.

“Everybody loves it, even those with mobility issues,” she said. “Everyone participates. Some may require some staff assistance, but most don’t.”

Levy got the idea for the program several years ago when participants in her program “heard music [from the staff Zumba class] and came out to peek and see what was going on.” Since they wanted to do it, as well, “We thought we’d give it a try.”

Not only does Levy plan to continue offering Zumba to the adult day program members, but she will also introduce it at Camp Chaverim, the JCC’s two-week camp program held at the end of the summer for special needs youngsters from 3 to 21.

Beth Chananie, another YJCC Zumba student, compares Zumba to “the line dance you do at a bar mitzvah. There’s a right way but, but as long as you keep moving, anything goes.”

Chananie – community editor of The Jewish Standard and author of the “Cooking with Beth” blog on its website www.jstandard.com, – said it is perfectly acceptable “to turn one way when people are turning another. It’s not intimidating,” she added. “You leave there laughing and sweating.”

“Bring a bottle of water,” says Chananie to those considering taking up Zumba. “And don’t wear sleeves. You really work it – no matter what level you’re doing.”