Forget Pilates – it’s time for a hearty party.

Movers and Shakers: Zumba class at Monterey Sports Center..

Dancing has always been a way to have fun. But serious dancing means serious exercise.

The enviable evidence is there in the bodies of professional dancers.

It’s apparent in the justifications “real women” with curves offer for their club-hopping habits: They can claim, with truth, that the calorie-burning benefits are worth the skin-tight tops, cover charges and bad pick-up lines.

And it’s particularly present at tonight’s Zumba Extreme class at the Monterey Sports Center. (Pronounced Zoom-buh, it means “fast-moving” in Colombian slang.)

The 2,290-square-foot-studio, with full-length mirrors and various athletic gear stacked in corners, is packed. Amongst a crowd ranging from college girls in tiny athletic tees to grandmothers in sweat pants and businessmen who just want to let loose, the excitement is electric.

Instructor Roberto Salazar wastes no time beginning. Faster than you can say “¡Azucar!,” he’s leading a sensual cha-cha, with the class following along. About 5-foot-6 with impressive biceps and ridiculously loose hips, Salazar keeps the movement lively by throwing in elements of capoeira (Afro-Brazilian mixed martial arts), hip-hop, and even yoga poses during the cooldown.

Combining the elements of Latin dance, African rhythms and infectious music, Zumba has swept across the nation, becoming especially popular on the East Coast. The originators of the dance jam use the catch phrase “Ditch the workout, join the party!” as the bait for this high-energy class.

Here’s the background: In the ’90s, celebrity trainer Alberto “Beto” Perez made a mistake. He forgot the workout music for an aerobics class and was forced to use the traditional salsa and merengue tunes he happened to have with him. Perez danced his way through the class – and people loved it. It became a national hit and before long, the Zumba craze had boogied from Colombia, where Perez was born, to the United States.

For attendees with rhythm, Zumba is a breeze: Just learn the dance moves and groove accordingly. But for those who occasionally need a bit more help, Salazar slows down.

Though dancing ability is a plus, the moves aren’t particularly difficult: a hand jive, a shimmy to the front, hips swivel to the left, a cha-cha to the back. The intermediate class is more a test of endurance – you need energy to keep up with, let alone execute, the dance moves.

Ten minutes into Zumba, the students are sweating – and smiling from ear to ear. Making it through the hour-long, high-energy class is a challenge, but one you’ll want to meet.

For information on Zumba Extreme and Zumba classes in Monterey, Carmel and Salinas, see box, accompanying article.

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