Why I Quit MMA for Zumba

"I felt just as vulnerable walking onto the female-dominated dance floor as I had walking into the ring."
Zumba like nobody is watching.
Alberto Perez, founder of Zumba Fitness. (USA-Zumba/Reuters/Stringer)

My concentration flagged for a moment when I lost my footing in a puddle of my own sweat. Stay focused, I told myself. You’ve got this.

And I did have it, sort of. My body was moving in roughly the same ways as all the people around me—ways my body was decidedly not used to moving.

I ended up in my first Zumba class due to a confluence of long-term curiosity and serendipity. It just so happened that there was a Zumba class starting at the gym as I walked in one day. I had heard good things about it, and had even watched parts of a class as I chugged away, bored, on the elliptical machine I’d been frequenting since quitting my mixed martial arts gym four months earlier. I peered into the fishbowl of the group exercise room. They looked like they were having fun.

It was fun, I discovered. Fun and slightly mortifying. My Northern European roots equipped me with competence in following your basic 1-2-3-kick, 1-2-3-clap rhythms; but salsa and merengue were like quantum physics for my feet. Had it been a square-dance fitness class, I would have killed it. As it was, I was just barely keeping up.

Our gym is one link in a mega-chain of gyms. It’s in a trendy, diverse, gay-centric neighborhood, and its clientele has the reputation of being serious about group exercise, and unforgiving to instructors who don’t bring it. But if the 30-some women and five dudes who skillfully shimmied as I lumbered alongside them harbored any bad feelings toward me—if they even noticed that I was there—they didn’t let on. I Zumba-ed like nobody was watching.

And then came the booty-shaking part of the class. The speakers pulsed with Kat DeLuna’s “Whine Up.” Louis, the instructor, shouted, “One! Two! Boom Boom Boom!” thrusting his pelvis forward and back with piston-like power and fluidity.

I could have shuffled in place instead, but I was determined not to wimp out. After a lifetime of trying not to draw attention to my ass, I shook it. Not only back-and-forth, but also side-to-side. Nerve endings that had never been fired clicked like dead igniters on a gas grill, but finally sparked to life, activating muscles that had only twitched involuntarily, if ever. While Louis’s hips hit every beat with the smooth precision of a Lexus, mine sputtered like an old Dodge truck with a couple of frayed spark plug wires and a leaky fuel pump. The mirror confirmed the feedback that my body was giving me: This was not pretty. Another thing I noticed in the mirror was my big idiot-grin.

I’m at a point in my life where I want to try uncomfortable things that I wouldn’t have risked as a younger man. It’s one of the advantages of being a middle-aged, minivan-driving dad. You become liberated from the shackles of coolness.

As an uncool dad, I have tried other uncomfortable things in the name of fitness and exposing myself to unfamiliar social situations. At the beginning of this year, for instance, I decided I would try my hand at hand-to-hand combat. I had been in a fitness rut. At best, I would go through the motions of the same workouts I had been doing for years. Often, I was so uninspired at the prospect of exercising that I just wouldn’t bother. But this new thing—learning how to fight—was something I was so fascinated by, and yet inexperienced in, that I would schedule my days around class times so I didn’t miss anything. I had trouble sleeping on nights before a workout, and practiced combinations of punches and kicks while out for my nightly stroll, much to the consternation of my skittish dog.

There was a lot I enjoyed about working out at the mixed martial arts gym. It was great exercise, and I felt like I was not completely terrible at it. I thought I had some potential—I could put some force behind my punches and kicks. But it wasn’t just learning a new sport that attracted me to the gym. It also felt subversive: I was pushing against a taboo of my non-violent, conflict-avoiding upbringing. Participating in the most basic expression of traditional masculinity—fighting—felt edgy against the backdrop of my comfortable lifestyle of being a gender-norm-defying stay-at-home dad and all-around sensitive pacifist. Being a dude who does Zumba is edgy in its own way too, of course; I felt just as vulnerable walking onto the female-dominated dance floor as I had walking into the ring.

MMA was a successful attempt to get out of my comfort zone and get some exercise. Ultimately, though, it was my creaky 46-year-old body that let me down. Before I started my short-lived fighting career, several people told me I was a fool and that I was risking terrible injury. I pooh-poohed them and assured them that it wasn’t Fight Club. This was a controlled environment, I thought; the instructors aren’t going to let me get hurt.

Except that it was kind of like Fight Club, especially on Friday evenings, when we would “armor up” (shin-pads, mouthguards, cups if you had them—nobody wore headgear) and start sparring. The buzzer would sound and everyone would wail on each other for a few minutes until it sounded again, at which point we would rotate and wail on different guys.

I participated in these melees exactly twice. The first time, I spent the initial rounds just getting used to the sensation of being hit in the face and head. I eventually landed a few punches and kicks, but couldn’t figure out how to wipe the sweat out of my eyes with boxing gloves on. Whenever I opened my mouth to breathe, my mouthguard fell out. But I couldn’t breathe through my nose, because it was gushing blood. Finally, I landed a nice roundhouse kick to my opponent’s ribcage, and promptly pulled a hamstring in my kicking leg. I limped back to my minivan, looking like I had been hit by a bus.

After the two weeks it took for my hamstring to repair itself, I went back and sparred again. This time I felt more confident. I punched deliberately, and blocked my opponent’s attacks. I saw an opening and threw the same roundhouse kick that had been my undoing the last time. Then I heard a “pop” and went down like a sack of fertilizer. It was the knee of the leg I was standing on.

That was the last time I went to the MMA gym, and I haven’t thought about it all that much since then. I admitted to myself that it was about 20 years too late for me to take up that sport, and moved on.

As I was walking my dog last night, I found myself going over a particularly troublesome step we had done in Zumba. I stopped to try and work through it on the sidewalk, which made my dog snarl goofily and play-bow: the opposite of her reaction to my punching and kicking.

While training MMA, I started to develop some self-confidence, and told myself that my month or so of classes could come in handy if I needed to defend myself or my family from evildoers. That, of course, was ridiculous, and made me feel like violence could break out at any minute, and that counter-violence would be a reasonable response. But I would rather live in a world where I’m expecting a party to break out at any minute. And when it does, I’ll be ready.

Presented by

Andy Hinds is a stay-at-home dad to twin girls. He's the author of the website Beta Dad and a contributor to DadCentric.  

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Health

Just In