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The Psychology of Zumba

01/23/2013 04:16 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

Zumba brings out my inner diva. My buttocks slapping, hips gyrating, sassy-mouthed inner diva.

Ladies -- and the one gentleman in my class who does Zumba to pick up women -- why does Zumba have such a loyal following? And even more baffling, how does Zumba get people who have been scarred by high school dance tortures to willingly shake their spandex covered thighs in a blindingly lit room with a giant window?

Call it Zumbaism. The gym religion that seemingly erases everyone's fear of the dance floor, embraces all shapes and sizes and encourages wild yelping, clapping and public displays of latin-ness.

It's Zumbaism at work.

Somehow Zumbaism makes me feel like a thugged-out gangsta during the rap songs, a spicy Latin diva during the Spanish tunes and a Christina Aguilera impersonator during the female sung warm-up ballads.

I did not truly appreciate the extent of my conversion to Zumbaism until I (embarrassingly) heard a song from class at a bar and without realizing it, began the classic Zumba steps.

I clearly frightened the man next to me when he asked if I was alright and then upon confirmation that I was, in fact, alright, he ventured, "Wow, I guess you must really like this song."

Attempting to cover up my mortification at doing Zumba moves in a bar, I said, "Yes, sir" to the annoying-not-that-good-looking-stupid-hipster, "I do really like that song."

At first I cursed the Zumba Gods -- why, oh why did they take over my brain and make me do the shimmy forward, shimmy backwards, side step side step move in public! But then I realized, that is the magic of Zumbaism. It's supposed to become second nature. It's supposed to feel like a party and make you forget that you're dancing next to someone your Grandmother's age at 10 a.m. on a weekday and your parking is almost up.

The psychology of Zumba is a heady cocktail of social proof, exercise-induced endorphins and self-induced blindness. Let me elaborate.

Zumba is a giant whopping dose of social proof -- everyone else is 'dropping it like it's hot' and they don't look embarrassed, so why should you?

Its high-paced salsa-inspired moves and grapevine-esque shuffles get your blood pumping, your sweat pouring and your feel-good endorphins pulsing.

Lastly, the smorgasbord of people who show up to class challenge our sense of normalcy, so we just pretend it's normal. There aren't many situations where ladies from the retirement community, 20-something professionals, pregnant ladies and college students gather together to sweat.

Let's be honest: Zumba is premium for people-watching. In fact, I could tell you six Zumba archetypes that are in every Zumba class across the country:

• Suck-Up Zumbaer: This is the snooty, wannabe professional dancer who shows up to class super early, is dressed for a music video and tries to out-do the teacher with all of her moves. Calm down, lady, everyone knows you're better than us. But jeez, this is Zumba not Justin Bieber's next YouTube video.

• This-Is-A-Work-Out Zumbaer: This is the girl who comes to class "just for the workout" in matching spandex, arm weights, ankle weights and makes sure everyone around her knows that she needs lots of space for her kicks. She also, annoyingly, jogs in place in between songs to 'keep her heart rate up.' Really, are you going to burn that many extra calories by doing that?

• Is-This-African-Dance Zumbaer: This lady comes to class in bare feet, a weird toga and dances to her own drum. Literally, she sometimes brings her own drum. You hate to be next to her because she only follows the 'essence' of the Zumba steps while 'internalizing' the sound of the music. It's really frickin' distracting.

• What-Was-That-Step Zumbaer: Whoah to the non-dancer newbies who come to class and are permanently behind. She tries her best, bless her heart, but no matter how much you try to answer her pleas, she inevitably chooses the wrong direction to shimmy and claps a beat behind everyone else. You make yourself feel better by telling yourself that you were never as bad as her.

• The Zumba Man: You know, that guy. He stands in the back and looks at everyone's butts? I wonder if his wife knows.

• The Zumba You: Of course, you are none of these ridiculous archetypes. You are a pretty good dancer, polite with floor space and always bring your own towel. Wink, wink, I won't tell anyone that every archetype thinks their this one.

So, my fellow Zumbaers, I hope you never find yourself doing moves in a bar, nor next to a What-Was-That-Zumbaer during class. But if you do, curse the Zumba gods, dance a little harder and pretend it's not happening.

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