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California Literary Review

Wepa! It’s Aqua Zumba!

Wepa! It’s Aqua Zumba! 1


Wepa! It’s Aqua Zumba!

“The way I see it,” says Solano, “is that the endorphins kick in and make you feel happy, love dancing, and you want to share it. Your mental ability is improved, and it helps the memory, calms you, and whatever anxieties you have accumulated can be turned around.”

Oscar and Plunge Zumba class

Oscar Ivan Solano’s Aqua Zumba class.

When I retired from my day job nearly two years ago, I had a very definite idea of how I planned to use the nine hours each day that I had given over to public service for the previous 22 years. At the top of my list was Zumba class. A colleague who had raved about hers, convinced me to join her at a local studio packed to the gills with other Zumba enthusiasts. I went twice a week for six weeks, and bought a pair of regulation Zumba shoes when I saw that my old reliable jazz shoes were not up to the challenge. I had recently recovered from hip surgery, and a subsequent fractured hip. I couldn’t wait to get my mojo back!

Eduardo’s Zumba class attracted that remnant of the population parlaying dance movement to settle accounts with a stressful day. After six weeks, I was forced to acknowledge that replacement of my hip hadn’t extinguished my arthritis. Though the rest of me was singing after Zumba class, my right knee was screaming, and no amount of heat/ice/heat/ice or ibuprofen could relieve the pain. I bid my teacher Eduardo a reluctant farewell via email, and signed up for water aerobics at the faded glory Richmond Plunge natatorium that had recently been artfully renovated to keep the natural light of its original design. During the two hours a day, twice a week of water aerobics taught by Sandy, I balleticized jumping jacks into echapés and turned side steps into glissades. I had almost recaptured my dance mojo! The only obstacle was that knee, now at the bone-on-bone stage of its degeneration. Last week, I noticed that the Plunge had begun an aquatic Zumba class! I couldn’t wait to join it! My compromised knee and I could now dance outright in a new non-weight-bearing context. My new water Zumba teacher is Oscar Ivan Solano, Jr. and I had an opportunity to speak with him about Aquatic Zumba.

Oscar was born in El Salvador. Both his parents were teachers in the 1970s there, when a civil war divided the country into two camps. Opponents of the government favored overthrow of the 60-family right wing oligarchic dictatorship headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte, a figurehead who remained in power with the help of U.S. government-trained death squads and military aid. The national teachers union was a big force in protests against the Duarte government. Oscar’s father was a member of the teacher’s union, but he was not politically active. Nonetheless, his name showed up on a list of individuals targeted by the death squads, and so both of Oscar’s parents fled to the United States, leaving Oscar, his two brothers and younger sister in the care of their grandmother. They had hoped that the conflict would be a short one, and intended to return, but the separation lasted six years, at which time, the two boys came to the United States by obtaining student visas.

“I studied at the Philip and Sala Burton High School in San Francisco, graduated, and went to community college with the intention of becoming a doctor, but that was not possible, so I switched to architecture, as I loved drawing and sketching.”

Solano attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and became an architectural designer. “Never feeling any urgency to become an architect, I worked in the architectural field for 10 years before the economic woes hit and I lost my job. I was unemployed for almost a year, and through salsa dancing, met someone in San José who happened to be a Zumba instructor. She saw my style, exuberance, honesty, and we became friends. In May, 2010, she suggested that I become a Zumba instructor, and by October, 2010, I was teaching it.”

The Zumba industry is international: There are different styles from all over the world, including merengue, salsa, cha-cha-cha, tango, flamenco, bhangra [Indian] , swing, bachata [Dominican], hip hop, and reggaeton. Another aspect that lends Zumba its international character is that instructors are from many different countries. Bay Area Zumba teachers are planning an evening Zumba party on July 4th, in Concord, California. The teachers who will participate are from Mexico, India, and the Americas, including the United States. Solano sees it as a “wonderful opportunity” for Zumba dancers to experience all styles. “I feel like the world has gotten a little smaller thanks to Zumba. Another international aspect is that I can go anywhere on the globe, and the class will be the same. Also, students come from different backgrounds, ages, nationalities, and economic backgrounds.”

Beto Pérez, a Colombian aerobics instructor, created Zumba. He invented it by playing music from many different cultures and choreographing progressive exercise steps to the music. The physiological goal is aerobic exercise to burn calories, and to get dancers moving fast to achieve a racing metabolism. “The way I see it,” says Solano, “is that the endorphins kick in and make you feel happy, love dancing, and you want to share it. Your mental ability is improved, and it helps the memory, calms you, and whatever anxieties you have accumulated can be turned around. Students say they feel great: they come in feeling stressed, but during class they don’t think about those stresses, and by the end of class, put enough distance between themselves and their stress that they feel happy. For whatever reason a student comes, I always tell them ‘Do your best, be here in the moment, let’s move,’ and they do that, and the seniors are the ones who seem to have the most fun. They yell ‘Wepa!’ They are my favorites.”

Oscar currently teaches an average of 14 classes per week. Sometimes there are parties and he teaches more, mostly at the Richmond Recreation complex, and now at The Plunge in Point Richmond.

“The point is the journey to find what makes you feel good or happy. People ask, ‘What happened to architecture?’ Maybe it was for the best that after ten years, I was laid off, and met this person who was instrumental in changing what I do. When I was trying to find work after I was laid off, I was skeptical, but after 10 months, I grew frustrated, because I did as much as possible to get interviews, and even though I sent out 25 resumés I never even got an acknowledgment from a single one of the companies I wrote to, so I thought that maybe I should try something new, and then that’s when I tried Zumba.” What about the difference in income? “Right now, I think am making about 60 to 65% of what I made in architecture and that is pretty amazing, because I hear that the pay is not as good as that for fitness instructors, and by being independent of the fitness industry, I think I can reach a level where I will be as comfortable as I was in my former job, especially if I am being smart about what I want, honest in reflecting my sense of self worth; I give a lot, but there’s still more room, and to reach my former income level may require becoming a personal trainer. Though I don’t have health care benefits, because of Zumba I am living a healthy life style.”

Could this fun form of exercise be promoted to public school officials as a required program?

“Yes, it could be sold as a package for the school district. I have taught a few free community classes at Mira Vista Elementary School to make parents aware of how much fun it can be. On July 7, the City of Richmond will host the American Tennis Association, and I’ll do a Zumba demo there. City council reps will be there and it’s national, so I’ll have that opportunity and we’ll see what they are willing to do to extend Zumba into the schools.”


Oscar Ivan Solano’s Aqua Zumba classes: FRIDAYS at 9, SATURDAYS at 10 AM, Richmond Municipal Natatorium -“The Plunge” at Point Richmond, 1 East Richmond Ave. (at S. Garrard Blvd.), Richmond, CA 94801 ($10); SATURDAYS at 8:30 AM, Richmond Recreation Complex, 3230 MacDonald Ave. Richmond, CA 94804 ($8/class/student or a $72 monthly pass; SATURDAYS at 12 noon, Forma Gym,1410 North California Blvd., Walnut Creek, CA 94956 (go to for free guest pass and price information).

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Toba Singer, author of "First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists" (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City's School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the "Charleston Gazette," "San Francisco Chronicle," "Dance Magazine," "Dance Europe," "City Paper," "Provincetown Advocate," "Voice of Dance,", "InDance," and "Dance Source Houston." Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses' KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.



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