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Zumba Your Way Into Costa Rican Culture

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In 2010 when I moved to a small coastal town on the Pacific shores of Costa Rica, I was suddenly given the opportunity to live out my childhood fantasy. That fantasy, which involved a Patrick Swayze-esque man sweeping me off my feet and effortlessly lifting me in the air, didn't seem like such a far-fetched dream. After all, I was in a country where salsa, meringue, bachata and every other Latin-infused dance style was alive and kicking. It was a place where babies' bums wiggled to the musical beats and children's feet glided from left to right in perfect time.

My dream was to dance. Unfortunately, my body wasn't willing to cooperate.

I was a Midwestern girl with no rhythm. My hips were like cement. They were permanently planted smack dab in the center of my uncoordinated body. Move from side to side? I don't think so. Move front to back? Ain't gonna happen.

I was like a statue.

Only after consuming a few self-esteem boosting concoctions was I able to loosen up my Tin Man-like body just a smidge. But even then, it paled in comparison to all of the Costa Rican beauties that flashed their curvaceous bodies and fancy footwork in front of me.

I couldn't take my eyes off of them. They embodied everything I wanted to be. They were beautiful, graceful and sexual. They moved with ease. Dance was in their blood.

I was ashamed. I couldn't even bring myself to take free dance classes at the local Spanish school. I imagined myself as a graceless gringa. I simply couldn't subject what little pride I still had to the embarrassment that I was sure would ensue if I tried to dance in public.

So, I simply watched. I looked on as the locals took center stage. It was their time to shine. They didn't cower in the corner as I did. Instead, they found a partner and glided across the dance floor.

As the music switched from up-tempo salsa to slower-paced reggae tunes, I cautiously crept from my hiding spot. I could sway with the beats ever so slightly. And, if the music really moved me, I could even get my arms and legs into it.

But I never mastered the art of Latin dance.

It wasn't until I caught onto the Zumba craze one year ago that I faced my dancing fears. Despite my rigid robotic movements, I decided to test out this new cardio/dance fad. Plus, I was back on American soil where I wasn't in the company of booty-shaking beauties with salsa beats pulsing through their blood.

Fortunately, any anxieties I harbored were quickly eliminated. I fell in love. After a few classes I had actually picked up on the different routines. Don't get me wrong, I still had no rhythm or natural panache. But it didn't matter. If I screwed up, I laughed. If I couldn't shimmy my shoulders, I laughed. If I flailed my arms into someone's face, I apologized. And then I laughed.

For the first time in my life I had found an activity that merged my athletic abilities with my dancing desires.

And, with a few months of Zumba under my belt, I finally had a chance to redeem myself in Costa Rica. After eight months in the United States, I had once again returned to the land of dance. I still couldn't salsa. But I could Zumba.

When a Zumba class opened up on the beach, I went. I let go of my reservations and joined a mixture of locals and foreigners for one hour of pure enjoyment. We moved, we laughed and we danced. Any cultural barriers that stood between us were removed for this single hour.

It didn't matter where you were from, what your social class was or even what your dancing abilities were. No one cared. We were all there for one reason: to let go. We all gave ourselves over to the music.

Strangely enough, it was the first time in almost two years that I actually felt connected with the local people. I could see the sparkle in their eyes as the beats quickened and their bodies merged with the music. I was no longer simply an outsider looking in, but just another person taking part in a cultural ritual.

Each time I went, I greeted the locals and they me. I learned -- just as they did -- to let the music guide me. And, most importantly, I learned not to care about how I looked or what anyone else thought of me.

For a brief moment, nothing mattered except the music and the moves.

Months later, I realize that I'll never be able to shake my hips like Shakira. And that's ok. I've now learned to work with my stiff shoulders and fumbling feet. Above all, I've learned a little about why Costa Ricans love to dance so much. The liberation that results when you let go of all inhibitions is like nothing else.

When the music moves you, move with it.