LPM Staff

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Becky Arnold dancing with Helmut Salas

You’ve heard of zumba, right? The fortuitous “fitness party” where people of all ages and all cultures dance to infectious, Grammy Award-winning Latin music?

Here’s the quick FYI: About 15 years ago, Columbian aerobics instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez forgot his music for class. He quickly improvised, grabbed a few salsa and merengue cassette tapes out of his car– and voilá, zumba was born. Now zumba is a multi-million-dollar fitness program offered in gyms and studios around the globe.

I took my first zumba class not long ago. I can dance a decent salsa, so I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble following the quick steps and speedy caderas.

It didn’t matter if I could follow or not; I could have been clog dancing or doing crazy José Limón moves for all I  or anyone else cared. The outcome was this: an exhilarating hour of exercise for my heart, lungs and overall musculature (dancers have the best piernas, ¿qué no?) and a liberating workout for my mind and spirit.

I have tried everything from Jazzercise and Pilates to boot camps and Buns of Steel, and can tell you that the zumba class was the most fun I’ve ever had exercising. Period. I walked out of class feeling happy, clear-headed and yes, sexy.

Dancing is a truly holistic way to keep fit and youthful. Because it’s a low-impact form of exercise, if you must call it that, it strengthens bones and muscles without strain on the joints; improves balance and posture; increases stamina and flexibility; eases mental stress and tension, and staves off diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis and depression. To sweeten the pot even more, dancing builds confidence and provides a fun way to be social and meet new people. Better than bingo, I say.

Zumba, cumbia, samba!

Anita Ponce has been dancing ever since she could walk, with encouragement from her abuelitos, who were known at family gatherings and social events for their dancing skills. She says zumba has definitely put her in better shape; it’s even boosted her self-esteem.

Now she teaches zumba fitness classes at the South Mountain YMCA. She’s seen the classes steadily grow since their inception. “Zumba has been very well received,” says Anita. “[They’re] the most popular classes at the Y.” Teenagers on up to senior citizens in their 60s attend her zumba classes.

Anita enjoys being a role model and inspiring people to get fit through dance. She says if you love to dance, you’re halfway there. “You don’t even need to be a good dancer,” she confirms. “Just move your body to the music and you will soon see that exercise does not have to be boring.”

Music is a key, motivating factor in any fitness program, and that’s one thing zumba has going for it: high-energy Latin-inspired beats, including salsa, hip-hop and reggaeton. That is, if you like that sort of music. (My mom would dig a little cumbia, but forget the hip-hop.)

Other forms of dance are good for you, too: ballroom dancing, for instance. A 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who ballroom danced a minimum of two times a week were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other dementia as they aged. The tango, samba, foxtrot and waltz engage the mind, body and spirit all at once, firing off brain chemicals that encourage nerve cells to grow. And any dancing that requires remembering steps and sequences stimulates the brain and improves memory skills. More fun than crossword puzzles, I say.

Case in point: Becky’s ballroom blitz

Her remarkable physical, mental and spiritual well-being are attributed to having danced for most of her life. But you wouldn’t guess by looking at her that it’s been 70-plus years of dancing.

In a large nutshell: Becky Arnold started learning tap at the tender age of 3 years. She learned modern dance in high school and choreographed school assemblies with the jazz swing band. After graduating, she took her newfound typing and shorthand skills and worked in offices, taking ballet classes in her free time. On a whim, she applied to San Francisco State College, where she was accepted and began her studies of modern dance, and where she met her future husband Mac, also a dancer.

The couple married and moved to the East Coast in 1959. Mac got a real job as an engineer and Becky auditioned for Broadway shows and danced in summer stock musicals. With a wry smile, she likes to joke that she’s “been undressed in every dance theatre in New York.”

In 1966, Becky met post-modern contemporary dance artist and choreographer Yvonne Rainier at a Merce Cunningham technique class. Rainer invited Becky to join her dance troupe, which she did for the next five years, touring the U.S. and dancing right through her pregnancy. “Yvonne radicalized me,” says Becky.

In 1972, Mac and Becky moved to Massachusetts, where Becky began doing her own choreography in Boston on an NEA grant. She and Mac picked up on the disco craze when it hit and were featured on a TV program, showing off their disco dance moves.

And when it was time for Mac to retire, a swing dance club in Phoenix brought them to the Valley in 1995. The active couple kept on dancing until Mac died in 2008.

Today Becky is an avid tango dancer. She competes in tango and  international standard ballroom dance with Helmut Salas, a Peruvian dance instructor. Becky has traveled to Buenos Aires to dance in milongas, famous dance halls established strictly for tango. She’s tangoed in San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco, and this month, she’ll be going to Vancouver, B.C., with plans to eventually tango in New York and Miami.

This chronicle of Becky’s dancing life is to make a point: The woman has more spunk and sparkle than women half her age. At almost 75 years old, she’s got a twinkle in her eye, a well-postured spring in her step (despite having both hips replaced), and loads of energy, or what Becky calls her “gift.”

But what she loves most about dance is not the physical – it’s the “mental stimulation of dance,” says Becky. “The brain is challenged to do atypical movement. It transforms you.”

She says it’s never too late to start dancing, nor do you have to be proficient. She sees one woman out dancing who is 100 years old. “We are meant to move,” says Becky. “And if it lights your fire in any way … it’s exhilarating!”

So move. Get exhilarated. Tango, zumba, square dance or tap, whatever lights your fire. Besides, isn’t it more appealing to dance than to plod away on a treadmill? That’s what I thought.

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