Friday, September 20, 2013

The Zumba Master: Ready for Prime Time?

Since the big remodel, there’ve been TV sets scattered throughout the locker room at my health club. And, come to think of it, there are TVs all over the workout area too, including those cute individual sets that keep me amused while I sweat on the treadmill. Seems as though fitness and electronic media go hand in hand.

That’s not a new phenomenon, of course. In fact, there’s a long history of firm-bodied professionals taking to the airwaves to preach the gospel of fitness. Back when I was a kid, my weight-conscious mother would flip on the Jack LaLanne Show, hoping to lose unsightly flab by exercising along with the jumpsuited guru on our living-room Zenith. My sister and I found LaLanne hilarious, and liked to mock his sentimental closing song. If memory serves, it was crooned to the tune of “O Sole Mio” (“It’s time to leave you/ Let’s say goodbye/ These precious moments/ Just seem to fly”). To us LaLanne was insufferably cornball, but he inspired many a restless housewife to at least think about getting in shape.

Needless to say, there’ve been many televised exercise kings (and queens) since. Richard Simmons, for one, has parlayed his zany brand of fitness into game show appearances, talk shows, and commercials, along with frequent TV and movie roles.

But it’s always surprising to go to my gym for an exercise class and meet an instructor who seems to be auditioning for a major Hollywood gig. That’s how I felt when I chanced to attend a “Dance with Me” class led by Billy Blanks Jr. and his actress-wife Sharon Catherine. The two make a charming couple, and lots of gym rats turn out for their high-energy danceathons. And it’s undeniably fun to form a big circle and cheer for classmates who are strutting their stuff. Only later do you realize that – much as you enjoy their sessions – you’ve spent a fair amount of time simply watching other people bring it on. Which is not exactly the point, right?

Today my usual Zumba class had a substitute teacher, Derrick J. Garcia, who was Hollywood all the way. Before starting, this dynamo immediately presented his credentials: he told us he’s the Zumba instructor on TV’s The Biggest Loser, and dances professionally at Richard Simmons events. He then launched into a blisteringly fast set of dance moves, accompanied by almost non-stop patter. Many of his references were show-bizzy: Oprah, Beyoncé, Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid (“Wax on, wax off”) Not to mention suggestive, like encouraging us to shake “that junk in the trunk.” Derrick’s moves were often embellished by shimmies, naughty wiggles, and unabashed mugging: he repeatedly crossed his eyes for us, and probably twerked too. In fact, I concluded that Derrick is in line to be the Cal Worthington of fitness. Like Worthington, who’s sadly gone on to that big used-car lot in the sky, he would probably stand on his head to achieve his goal: getting us moving.

If Derrick is Cal Worthington for the exercise set, he cribs a bit of Oprah too. At the end of class we were required to look in the big mirrors and recite affirmations: “I am beautiful . . . strong . . . kind . . . smart.” Fifty sweaty Zumba enthusiasts stumbled out of the workout room in a happy daze, feeling (though surely not looking) like a million bucks.  

In the locker room a friendly older lady paused to consider Derrick’s metrosexual appeal. Said she, “There’s men and there’s women. He’s the next generation.” Yes, and definitely ready for his close-up.


  1. My mom watched Jack LaLanne religiously in the late 60's or early 70's. I still remember - despite being somewhere between 2 and 4 years old - seeing him on our television and my mom working out on the living room floor. He was amazingly full of life - as he proved with his yearly birthday stunts into his 90's. My favorite LaLanne appearance is his very brief cameo in the movie Batman (1966). As the dynamic duo fly the Batcopter over Gotham City - they pass over a tall building with a dozen or so women in workout gear being led through some brisk exercise by none other than Jack LaLanne in his customary workout garb. From this aerial shot he waves up at camera - and he's gone. What's wild is that the younger folk who have broad enough minds to seek out and enjoy a campy take on the Dark Knight would have no idea they were seeing a celebrity cameo in the movie.

    I first saw Richard Simmons on local TV in Florida in the early 80's. We were there on a family trip - and I can pinpoint the time to the week President Reagan and Jim Brady were shot. At the time Simmons had a daily half hour workout show - and in all honesty while he did have segments showing exercise - he seemed much more interested in performing in skits dressed in drag as a blonde nurse (!) which he seemed to do in every episode I glimpsed in the morning before heading off to Disneyworld or Cape Canaveral.

    I am impressed that you are a Zumba student - I have done some video game Zumba and it is a serious workout - even if the name does suggest s slugfest opponent for Godzilla on the late show!

  2. I love these memories, Mr. C. I can't say I've ever paid much attention to Richard Simmons, and I've forgotten (or never knew about) the Jack LaLanne cameo in Batman. As for me, I've danced from a very young age (some of my early teachers have become important figures in the modern dance world), and Zumba is my favorite form of exercise. I like to think I'm pretty good at it (she said, modestly).