Blood-pumping Latin music, the tinkle of belly dancing charms and a room full of sweaty women laughing and dancing to the beat.
It’s not what you’d expect when walking into a church. But that’s what you’ll find in churches across Spokane Valley, as they’ve exploded with the evangelistic fervor of Zumba.
Zumba is a dance-inspired workout that started in the ’90s using the energy of Latin dance moves and music to make a fun form of fitness. But for almost 10 Spokane Valley churches, it’s also a way to make ministry more community-minded.
When Alysia Brewer started teaching a Zumba class at Eastpoint Church in October 2010, she wanted to launch a women’s small group and share the improved health she’d experienced in a welcoming, affordable way.
“Zumba was my first attempt at working out. I loved it,” she said, explaining that she lost more than 100 pounds in 2010 while attending Megan Hopson’s Zumba class at the YMCA. “I truly have a heart for women and for them to be healthy. I want women to feel comfortable, feel they can afford it and bless our church financially.”
With those goals Brewer prayed that at least 20 women would come to her first class. She had 40. The next week, her class size doubled and by the third week close to 100 women were shaking, moving and sweating to the music.
On a recent Thursday evening more than 80 women filled the room, many donning belly dancing scarves.
“It’s the best form of exercise,” Debbie Froewiss said.
“But it doesn’t feel like exercise,” added her friend Diana Rennacker.
Froewiss nodded. “You’re dancing and sweating buckets. I’ve never liked exercise until this. Now I look forward to coming.”
Brewer’s class has been so popular women were spilling into the hallway; she added a second hour until they can move into a larger room in February, when the church completes an expansion.
“Students say I’m real and reachable,” she said with a shrug. “I mess up. I struggle with eating and exercise and life, so I appreciate that they’re OK with me being real.”
The only difference between her class and one at a gym, Brewer said, is that “if you want prayer, it’s available.”
After dancing for an hour to music by artists like Pitbull, Brewer invited anyone who wanted to stay and pray to circle a participant who had surgery scheduled the next morning. Most of the women gathered around.
Not all of the church Zumba classes have this spiritual element, but several include a prayer or start the class with a devotional thought or Bible verse.
“Because we are a ministry I do start out with a devotion,” said Hopson, who launched a class at Redeemer Lutheran church last January in addition to the class she teaches at the YMCA. “Typically it’s a verse, applicable to where we’re at and what we’re doing.”
Hopson’s church class is also aimed at affordability.
“I wanted a class that people could afford to go to. I didn’t want anything to hold them back,” she said. “It’s open for everybody. It doesn’t matter what your faith is. People think Zumba in a church is weird. It’s not. It’s a fun, healthy way to get fit.”
That’s exactly what Kelli Maidhoff found when she attended Hopson’s first class at Redeemer Lutheran. “With weight loss I’d get inspired and go to it for a while but not stick with an exercise program because I didn’t enjoy it. Zumba has created something totally different for me,” she said, explaining that she lost 72 pounds through Zumba and became an instructor this summer at The Intersection church.
“If you’d have told me in December 2010 I’d be teaching group fitness, I’d have laughed,” she said. “I like watching what it’s done for me and other women. Not just the weight loss, it’s a release.”
For instructor Kendra Wellner, who leads Zumba at One* church, it was a way to stay healthy and help manage her multiple sclerosis. “In 2009 I was diagnosed with M.S. I was paralyzed for three months. … Zumba really helped me get back into being able to function and do my daily tasks,” she said.
Wellner repeated what many of the Zumba instructors stressed, that the class is a fun workout appropriate for all ages, sizes and abilities. Perhaps that’s why it’s spreading like a church revival.
“Zumba is for everybody and it doesn’t matter what ailments you have,” Wellner said. “To me it is more than a workout. It’s saved my life. It gave me something to look forward to.”