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.