Congregational Studies through Zumba

Congregational Studies through Zumba

I was introduced to Zumba fitness at my YMCA, and I’ve been going to class most every week for over a year now. It’s fun, energizing, aerobic exercise, certainly more creative than calisthenics. I also find that this class connects in surprising ways to congregational life. Each week I notice more and more similarities between a Zumba session and the dynamics of a congregation gathering for and going through worship. I will be sharing these observations from time to time in this blog.

Let me begin with how people behave in arriving and departing.

Our Zumba room doesn’t resemble most sanctuaries in which I have worshipped, except those that are located in storefronts or other institutional spaces. The room looks like a dance studio, with wooden floors, florescent lighting, and floor to ceiling mirrors on two sides. We orient ourselves to face the ‘front’ where the small music box with its speaker sits on the right.

The participants – mostly female – arrive via one of two side doors and, like creatures of habit at church, immediately take their regular spots on the dance floor, adjusting as more arrive, careful to maintain as much personal space as possible. Even without pews, they automatically line up in rows, usually three, until the numbers push them into four rows. This press doesn’t mean that they create an extra row up front. No way! It is created at the back, and they try not to crowd the leader. As the dancers arrive, the few who know each other may chat, but the majority does not, mostly keeping to themselves and exchanging no more than a nod or a smile. By contrast, I find in congregations, that more of the regulars do converse with each other before the service starts, even drowning out the prelude, but in my Zumba class, no background music softens the wait.

Things don’t start until Justin, our instructor, arrives. In fact, our Zumba session is single leader dependent, as are most congregations, I would argue. Although in ecclesial settings, a choir, a liturgist, and ushers join the pastor up front, and we like to think all our attention is on God, were our Zumba room compared to a sanctuary, it would be more like a single, center pulpit over a divided chancel, and all eyes are on Justin. He welcomes us with just a few sentences and invites us to move as we are most comfortable, but we mirror all his moves as the music flows from song to song.

At the end of the fifty-minute routine, the instructor faces us, lifts his hands and moves his arms, benediction-like and says: “Out with hate, negativity, and fear; in with love, positivity, and hope; Zumba!” Participants applaud and, across the last two months, disperse to the ‘postlude’ of the Star Wars theme. A few chat with each other in departing, and many leave by way of thanking Justin. Others exit by the second door without interaction. We’ve all received a dose of what we wanted and expected: a quickened heart rate and an awakened, limber body. After a worship service at church, we might describe the effect as: “filled with the Spirit and equipped for service.”