GERIATRIC ZUMBA

It’s not easy keeping fit when you’re in your 80s, but Irving Wardle has found a way

It was an ad in the local paper that did it. It promised easy-going classes for the over-60s which would guarantee heightened energy and all-round well-being. Although they went by the passion-killing name of Prime Time, I signed up for the classes and became addicted on the spot. I liked the instructors. I liked the exercises, and all went well for a few years until the week when, to my dismay, Prime Time vanished from the timetable.

I should have seen this coming. Our numbers were in decline. What had been a boisterous roomful of 20 old ladies and me had shrunk to a defiant last stand of four or five old ladies and me. Big Sheila had been claimed by her grandchildren. Betty had to look after her sick husband. Chubby Barbara had died of cancer. Other men seldom came near the class, preferring to torture their biceps and glutes with pieces of machinery, or sit in the locker room ranting on about football. My impression was that the women came to the gym to do themselves a bit of good, whereas for the men it was somewhere to escape to.

The crunch arrived at a session when our hitherto undeflatable instructor, Pam, found herself alone with me, practising salsa steps for a full hour. That took the wind out of her. Too late, the others rallied for a final stand against the management: but the axe had fallen, and when Pam’s next class came around, Prime Time had given way to Zumba.

The average age in the new class was 35. It contained girls displaying intricate butterfly tattoos, wielding their hips like trip-hammers, and capable of changing from a herd of charging rhinos to a flight of migrating birds. The survivors of the Prime Time gang took one look at them and fled. For some reason, I did not follow them.

At 82 I was older than any of the old ladies; and every time I came to the gym I had to haul myself up the stairs to the reception desk with my knees cracking and popping like a xylophone band. But, once I got on the studio floor, it was as if I’d shed 20 years. I couldn’t bounce; but everything else—grapevine, box-step, mamba, up-and-over, cha-cha, repeater, curl, pony, half-jack and the whole aerobic box of tricks—I could still manage, and even enjoy. So why not stick around and see what else I might be able to do?

Zumba, I later discovered, was the invention of a Colombian fitness instructor who once turned up for a class without his aerobics music, and so made up a random session from the CDs he happened to have in his car. Not unlike Charles Lamb’s account of the origin of roast pig, this accident awakened an appetite that spread round the planet (125 countries by the latest Google-count). Unlike salsa, the previous dance epidemic, it’s a terpsichorean mongrel made up from elements of merengue, cumbia, reggaeton, mambo, flamenco and other dances I’d never heard of. I still couldn’t identify them, but I know how to move when your roof is on fire, or with one leg shackled to a ball and chain, or how to cut sugar cane with an invisible machete. You wind up sweaty and it’s exhilarating. 

Mongrel though Zumba may be, it feels authentic in a way aerobics never does; and the music is a distinct cut above “In the Mood” and “Pump it up, ya gotta pump it up”. According to the playwright Dario Fo, dance has a history of being taken from work routines—usually meaning the rich stealing their culture from the poor, as in the transformation of a gondolier’s rocking footwork into the stately advance and retreat of a Pavane. In Zumba you feel closer to the point of origin, with steps mimicking the shaking, dragging, digging and cutting movements of chain gangs and field workers. Peasant actions go on into old age, which is good news for those with squeaking joints as it means you get more stamping and less bouncing.

Back in my bouncing days, I went to Yat Malmgren’s Laban classes in the 1960s, and it was all girls even then. Most of them were drama-school beauties who made me acutely conscious of my mediocre physique. Geriatric Zumba is a big improvement on that. With Yat, I felt confident only when exercising flat on my back. Now I can travel fearlessly across the floor. What I’ve enjoyed most about being old is this discovery: that looking good is nothing compared with the pleasure of still being able to put one foot in front of the other and move. 

Picture: “The average age in the new class was 35.” Irving Wardle in action at his club in Barnet, north London. Photograph by Hannah Maulef Finch

Irving Wardle was the theatre critic of the Times from 1963 to 1989