Zumba is a dance of life, confidence and fun and part of remaking the Southwest Detroit neighborhood

February 23rd, 2016
Women and even children get moving in Zumba class at St. Anthony's in southwest Detroit.
Zumba is a dance of life, confidence and fun and part of remaking the Southwest Detroit neighborhood

by Marge Sorge
February 22, 2016
Detroit Unspun

It was tiring just to watch them jump, twirl, lunge and dance … and dance … and dance. It was about a half hour into the hour-long Zumba class at the Vista Partnership and the group of  about 30 was in full sweat, Zumba belts swaying and ringing, and still smiling.

There were kids running around, sometimes stopping to dance with the music, while others sat (and sometimes bounced to the beat) in strollers. Grandmothers sat on the sidelines watching the children.

It was mid-day and moms had charge of the non-school-age kids. There was one guy in group and he kept smiling too.

Led by Leticia De La Torre, the Zumba class is more than exercise. It’s a family. It’s a place and time that offers emotional support as well as health and exercise. That fits in perfectly with the Vista Partnership’s mission as a resident-centered community development organization that draws and builds upon the knowledge, talent and assets of people who live and work in the community. The Vista Partnership is an initiative of Southwest Solutions and several community partners.

De La Torre, who lost 97 lbs. doing Zumba, uses her talent to help lead others to a healthy lifestyle and give them renewed confidence.

“We promote sisterhood,” says De La Torre. “There is no discrimination here.”

The Vista Partnership is in Mexicantown where Spanish is the most spoken language. The Zumba class is conducted in Spanish (as was our interview with De La Torre’s sister-in-law Amanda De La Torre as translator). That works perfectly for everyone … almost. This part of Detroit is also adding new residents, not all of whom speak Spanish, or English.

One woman who joined the class spoke only Portuguese. Now you’d think the two languages spoken in countries so close to each other would be similar, right? Absolutely not.

“We communicated in sign language,” De La Torre says. “One time she wanted to order Zumba pants. Finally, after about a half hour, we understood but (no matter what) she was always smiling.”

Her Zumba classes are pretty popular. There are two sessions daily. During the winter months 35-45 attend the morning class and 15-20 go in the afternoon.  Last summer 40 and 50 “Zumbaters” showed up in the morning and 30-40 participated in the afternoon. And, the classes are growing.

The cost is $2 a class, but that is negotiable. In this neighborhood, lots of husbands have seasonal jobs and don’t work in the winter so the family must live on what has been in earned in the warmer months.

“If they can’t pay, it’s OK,” De La Torre says. “That’s not what’s we are all about. That’s not an excuse for not coming and making a difference in your health.”

There’s more to the program than Zumba classes that make a difference in health. De La Torre’s friend Olivia Ruiz will find sources for nutritional advice when needed and offers those interested the opportunity to use Herbal Life products.

De La Torre is an expert on getting one’s health in order. A while ago that 97 extra pounds on her small frame pushed her to make a change in her lifestyle. She got a Zumba video and also “danced” to classes on YouTube. That was OK, but she wasn’t crazy about exercising alone.

“I like to be surrounded by positive people,” she says. “With a group you encourage each other.”

Her personal passion for Zumba turned into a group passion and she began leading sessions in a friend’s backyard and later in a basement in her neighborhood. The classes grew and she decided to become a Zumba instructor … a challenge since the classes were conducted in English.

So she decided to start taking English classes at the Vista Partnership.

One day she came to class in her workout clothes. That prompted Dan Pederson, director of the Vista Partnership, to ask where she worked out. She told him she was a Zumba instructor, had about 25 women in classes in her friend’s basement and that space was pretty much maxed out.

It was an ah-ha moment. The upstairs of the Vista Partnership was open. It’s a big space. The organization is housed in what was the St. Anthony’s (Lithuanian) Church on Vernor and the upstairs is what was the sanctuary. (The congregation moved on when the church merged with another church in Southfield.)

“Wow … when I saw the place upstairs,” says De La Torre. “The basement floor was cement and hard on the legs. This floor is wood. It was like a dream.”

Mayte Penman, director of resident engagement at the Vista Partnership, promoted the Zumba classes to the neighborhood and on the Vista Partnership website and also helped create business cards.

The grand opening and ribbon cutting this past September was done in Mexican tradition, which requires a godfather and a godmother give a blessing. Pederson and Penman filled those roles.

“There was no mistake about who the godparents should be,” De Le Torre says. “They have always been there for us. Without them, we would not have had as much fun and help for the other women who came here because they feel someone cares.

“I love this place. They care about us.”

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