Fitness test: Zumba your way to a healthier lifestyle

Zumba is the ideal keep-fit option for people who dislike going to the gym.

Lucy Melton leads a class of mostly beginners in Zumba, the Latin-infused aerobics class.
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Every decade seems to bring a new fitness craze for the weight-conscious masses. With the 1980s came aerobics, complete with leotards, grapevines and leg-warmers. The 1990s saw the advent of the step workout, reinforced with home video offerings by the likes of the singer Cher, which was a personal favourite. And to open the 21st century we have had Zumba, a Latin-infused dance aerobics craze that is now practised in more than 75 countries, including the UAE, but about which I knew nothing before last week - aside from a few vague references by friends and colleagues.

Having spent the best part of three years boxing, I have all but mastered the art of rounding my shoulders and have lost a great deal of flexibility in the process. So it was with more than a touch of trepidation that I headed, lycra-free, towards the clubhouse at Al Murooj Rotana, Dubai, on Wednesday evening, for my first taste of Zumba with Core Direction's instructor Lucy Melton. "Don't be nervous, it's fun," the bubbly 23-year-old British dancer promised me before the class began. "The majority of the class is based around beginners and everyone at this class started quite recently. You don't need to be very co-ordinated. The steps are straightforward and it's quite repetitive so you'll pick it up."

I am told that Zumba was created by the celebrity fitness instructor "Beto" Perez, who forgot his music for an aerobics class he was taking in Colombia during the 1990s. He grabbed a tape from his rucksack containing a compilation of his favourite Latin salsa and merengue tunes and improvised his way through the class. It proved such a hit that he added several routines and it has gone on to be a global success, with more than six million people participating in classes every week at more than 50,000 locations.

Core Direction has been running its Zumba class for about six months from its Dubai Marina location, where at least 15 participants, including two men, are put through their paces at one of three weekly sessions, according to Melton. A fortnight ago it began two more classes - Mondays and Wednesdays - at Al Murooj Rotana residential complex, at the request of Dana Daher, a 35-year-old Canadian who lives at Al Murooj.

"I kept reading about the class online but I don't drive and so wanted something a bit closer," she said. "This is my sixth class and I'm really happy it's here. I like the music, it's fun and you feel like you're in a club dancing around." Daher hates the gym but wanted to break out of the sedentary lifestyle that is all too easy to slip into in the UAE. On this occasion there were nine of us - all women of various ages, nationalities and sizes - in the modest, stark white residential hall. To my relief, there were no mirrors.

As the clock struck seven we each found a space on the tiled floor and Melton led us through a straight-forward aerobic warm-up to relatively recent dance tracks. "I change the routines and the music every couple of weeks to keep it fresh for those who come regularly and to make it easier for newcomers to get involved," Melton explained. Having been put through some relatively simple, albeit energetic, dance moves with lots of arm stretching and knee-bending designed to get all the major muscle groups working, we began to make our way through some basic salsa, tango and merengue moves, complete with dramatic arm movements.

Counting to four became surprisingly difficult at one part of the routine as I tried to negotiate a leg kick and mini-trot within a four-beat while trying not to look like an extra in Disney's Fantasia, but Melton laughed and told us that when in doubt we should throw our arms and just have fun. Midway through we stopped and spent a track focusing on leg-strengthening, with a series of squats. I was warm and sweating by this point but as we giggled our way through the routine, sometimes messing up the timing but never particularly upset when we did, I never felt out of breath or as if I needed to stop.

This class is the perfect kick-start for anyone looking to start a healthier lifestyle who breaks out in a cold sweat at the thought of joining a gym. When 8pm arrived and the cool-down began, I was genuinely surprised at how fast the hour had gone and, as quickly as they arrived, everyone headed home again.