zumba illustration
Illustration by Molly Oleson

Pre-pandemic, I was a regular dancer and cryer at Maria’s classes at the Mission Rec Center on Harrison Street.  

Maria:  50-ish, vigorous, cherry red-lipsticked and bright-eyed. Maria, with her heart-shaped face and her wide smile, lugging in her speaker (as tall as she is)  at just past 11 a.m.  Saturday mornings. 

“Hola, chicas!”  

First task: getting the pingpong players to fold up their tables, “OK, gentlemen, this is our space now.”

We faced Maria, crowded together on a square mat between the treadmills and the young bucks lifting weights. Within 20 minutes, we all had a sheen, like we were bathed in light rain.

We were lucky if we had six INCHES of social distance between us. Kids ran around as their mothers danced, and I, well, I danced and I cried.

Maria played salsa and romances, and often danced up to each of us with her arms extended, a private moment of communion with each dancer, loving us. She played Gypsy Kings, “Ven, ven, ven, ven, ven, ven, Maria, ven ven ven!” as she sidled up and around us with her arms cajoling.  She played slower romances. (Yes, you can dance to “Sabor a Mi.”)

We were a motley Mission collection of all-aged ladies, including a Certain Age; we were Latinas, Filipinas, Chinese, and gringas like me.  There were tubby and chubby and scrawny and elegant, and I flung myself around, trying to make up with enthusiasm what I lack in skill  (always in the back row).

How I miss dancing and crying during Zumba classes!  Ah, we did not know how lucky we were. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til its gone, ” (Joni Mitchell).

One of the great taken-for-granted gifts of the S.F. Department of Parks and Rec were the free, citywide Zumba in the Parks classes.

I cried during Dalia’s 5 p.m. Thursday classes at the Bernal Heights Rec Center on Cortland, (she wore funny hats and decorated the drab gym for the holidays). Dalia had a following of buoyant and ebullient young Latinas plus matronly, yoga-panted Bernalese.

As the song goes, “La cosecha de mujeres NUNCA se ACABA!!”

The custodian watched, amused, as we shimmied and sweated and sprayed droplets (WHO KNEW!) up and down the rec center basketball court. Dalia played Caribbean, reggae and salsa, uptempo and LOUD.  In the back row, I hid out again. 

When I couldn’t do what  Dalia did, I did jumping jacks, or the twist, or ran in place like mad. The others gave me wide berth, but smiled encouragingly, and I only cried a few times there.

I especially cried during Jason’s Sunday morning athletic, acrobatic Cuban-inspired dances at the Crocker Amazon playground.  

There were more moves I could not do in Jason’s class than in any other, but Jason was cool.  Though I always took my place wherever  I was most well hidden, I really stood out among the young, graceful, dancer-esque devotees of Jason’s Zumba. 

To my chagrin, I saw he noticed my tears once.

“It’s just that I can’t do most of this, but thank you, “ I gasped, happily out of breath, “thank you so much for making a space for me to try!” 

“This is your dance, mama. It’s all about moving. You are doing great,”  he gallantly lied.

But really, no matter which instructor, the tears would begin to accumulate in my eyes and trickle down my cheeks. I leaked tears even while whipping my arms around like a propeller on a helicopter, and I swallowed the big lump in my throat when I concluded that I wouldn’t ever, never, really, salsa. 

That train had left the station, as the Russian proverb goes.

I took pleasure in the older moms dancing with their millennial daughters. I loved watching the younger moms dancing with their kids, and I took comfort in the occasional guys, some awkward boomer men, in shorts and ivy league t-shirts who were even worse than me. Like true masters of the universe, they didn’t mind, and they never cried.

I cried with relief, ’cause  I was really good at the grapevine step, (a legacy of folk-dance club in high school, long ago and far away).

I cried ’cause I wished I’d danced more, younger. 

I cried because it was so good to be moving and because I could not move more gracefully.  

I cried because I was grateful to be part of  the great, saucy “cosecha” of ladies, all coming together for an hour of joyful noise and bobbing bodies, for the sheer exuberant hell of it!

I miss crying in Zumba class in the Mission, and I will be first in line when Maria lugs the Gypsy Kings back to Harrison Street.

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  1. As a body worker and yoga instructor I feel this story so deeply!
    Thank you for writing about this and for the sweet illustration.

  2. Naomi,
    Thank you much for all your beautiful words. I did not stop crying from start to end of your piece. You have no idea how much miss dancing with you all because what you do for me every class cannot be describe in words, I feel it deep in my heart…pure love for each of you. I miss all of you and I know we will dance together again!
    Un abrazo fuerte!
    Maria Rodriguez
    Mission instructor
    Join my virtual class
    Email me at mjgrod@gmail.com

  3. I’m a Zumba Instructor and I miss seeing your smiling or crying faces at my classes! Zumba is such a release of emotion and stress, it always feels like it’s over as soon as it starts! I know virtual has it’s downsides but it’s more important to move and keep those connections with your friends, fellow students and your instructors. Find a virtual class on zumba.dance today and bring the joy back into your life!! Zumba Love Forever!!

  4. Thank you Naomi Marcus
    I feel very happy that I have been able to do something for my beautiful people in my community.
    Reading this makes me better every day and always give to all of you.
    With out you that important complement could not be made for me, you are the students.
    I miss you very much these moments lived. but also soon if God grants us we will be there again!
    Although I know that there are also many of our people who have left because of this pandemic.
    it hurts much.
    For them we are going to make a minute of silence to remember it and also join them in the party.
    Thank you for this, it filled me with joy and pride. see you soon 💛

  5. Amen! This little story really says it all…the things we took for granted! All the mostly ladies, and the great teachers, just movin their butts and having fun and listening to great tunes, connected, kinda, and all before midday! Beats goin to the clubs! Can’t wait to go back…thx

  6. Since I moved back to S. F. wanted to dance with the class. But, I was victimized sad & ugly. By the words that I read on each persona. I wish I had joined earlier. Always loved to dance Salsa or any kind of music. Its really true, you don’t know what you have until its gone.. but I am a prayer & it will happen again. Not all doors stay close. Some Doors open again. If you start again even outside, Can you please include me? Gracias for this space.. lots of love 💕

  7. “I cried because I was grateful to be part of the great, saucy ‘cosecha’ of ladies, all coming together for an hour of joyful noise and bobbing bodies, for the sheer exuberant hell of it!”. You are a good writer, Naomi Marcus. Thank you for this piece.

  8. Me encantan los muchos sentimientos que tocan el corazon por la autora, Naomi Marcus. Ella describe su verdad en frases a la vez simples y profundas de la experiences humana: el gran pesar de la vida.

  9. I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed Naomi’s pieces over the years.
    There’s an insight and sweetness to them that I find uplifting.
    It’s refreshing.
    I look forward to more…

  10. I read this aloud to my husband and am sending to a zumba-loving friend. The joy of movement with others is different that moving alone, but that can by joyful too. I look forward to dancing with you when we see each other again, dear one.

  11. Love your article. I miss yoga and Zumba classes at the JCC so much it makes me want to boo-hoo buckets. I never cried in class but your reasons for doing so touch my heart bc the joy that Zumba inspires needs to be celebrated and appreciated. Thanks for sharing the joy.

  12. what a beautiful story! reminds me when i took an african movement dance class with two drummers above leeds shoe store in the mission. there were over 50 people on the floor. i didn’t cry but i sure felt good afterwards.