Reclaiming Bodies and Space through Serious Booty

Based on Chapter 26 in East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte and South El Monte Arts Posse’s “East of East” archive.

Text and archival material curated by Elita Laya

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Zumba is a global fitness trend that combines Latin inspired music and dancing. "Beto" Perez invented Zumba in 2002. It offers brightly colored fitness gear, sneakers, sweatbands, and instructional DVDs. The music and movements include cumbia, salsa, merengue, bachata, salsa, and reggaeton as cardio workouts.

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Drive into El Monte, through Arcadia and Temple City and today you will never know that flamboyant neon flags once cover the windows and the ground. Along Garvey Avenue, one of the biggest commercial boulevards, Zumba finds a home. These lessons resurrected El Monte's lifeless business strip and boosted the local economy. A place where women are scrutinized, pursued, condemned, and physically assaulted for having an embodied body (one that does not hide itself) or sexuality. The Zumba surge and the 2008 economic meltdown allowed women in El Monte to temporarily lease abandoned buildings for workshops and Zumba-inspired shops, and take up space in an area that was previously especially inaccessible to them.

Zumba studios on Garvey Avenue and other major roadways in El Monte provided women an unique sense of security. A body may be whatever it wants once inside or past the front door as women gather outside to claim the walkways. By extension, a true Zumba woman owns every inch of land she walks on and claims her right to be who she is and where she is.

Despite its public location, Zumba refuses to be a public spectacle. The intimate mirror performance includes forceful reggaeton pelvic thrusts, sensuous waist writhing, and muscular shoulder shimmying. It is a self-examination and a celebration of pleasure. Here, "you take pleasure in shaking your booty, thighs, arms, and stomachs of all shapes and sizes".

In El Monte, poor and working-class women have mixed and matched Zumba to make it more than simply exercise. It's a way of life for them, thanks to their dancing teacher Queen Calafia. Zumba helps women build a barrio feminist style that lets them reclaim their bodies and public space. As a group, these women: 1. work out and shake their booties, 2. enjoy the paisa and pocho-ness that comfortably mashes together spandex, banda, hip hop and reggaeton, and 3. develop true friendships and support networks.

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In Veronica Marquez's Zumba lessons, dances may turn into impromptu choreographies or dance wars. It's a great time for women to let loose and improvise their own dances as the others applaud. Zumba isn't about teaching women about their bodies or how to lose weight safely—it's about having fun, being energized from head to toe by a song you really like, building bonds with other women, and being committed to something that just makes you feel good.