This morning I woke up with aching muscles and a smug sense of satisfaction. The reason? I went to a Zumba class yesterday. It was an hour-long workout (it felt shorter), to loud, energetic music and it was great. A lot of the songs we exercised to were pumped up versions of salsa classics (Celia Cruz’s Quimbara made an early appearance). I loved this. I’m a keen amateur salsa dancer, but haven’t been able to dance since last November due to an unrelated injury; it was wonderful to be able to perform some of the moves I have missed to music that I adore.
My experience of the class seemed an obvious demonstration of the power of music, both to make me work harder and to make me smile. When I had observed a portion of the previous day’s class from relative safety on the other side of the soundproof door, the sweaty bodies moving not-quite-in-time looked ridiculous. But from the inside, with the bass pumping, I was carried away, and it felt as though we were all moving in harmony. (Although I haven’t thought it through properly yet, this would seem to resonate with the “distributed subjectivity” that Anahid Kassabian theorises in her brilliant latest book Ubiquitous Listening (2013).)
It is possible to formulate critiques of this experience on at least three levels:
1. Zumba (Or rather, “Zumba®”.) According to the website www.zumba.com, this is “The World’s Leading Branded Fitness Program”. It asks participants to “Ditch the workout – join the party!” and describes itself as “a global lifestyle brand that fuses fitness, entertainment and culture into an exhilarating dance-fitness sensation!” The website continues, “Zumba® exercise classes are ‘fitness-parties’ that blend upbeat world rhythms with easy-to-follow choreography, for a total-body workout that feels like a celebration.” In this context, “branded” is an understatement. There is, for example, a whole section of the website detailing their “Trademark Usage Guide”, with instructions such as the following:
THE ZUMBA® TRADEMARKS SHOULD NOT BE USED IN THE FOLLOWING WAYS:
With the letter “Z” not capitalized—For example, zumba or zumba fitness.
Misspelled — For example, “Zoomba” is not allowed.
As a verb — For example, “once you zumba, you’ll be hooked” is not allowed.
As a noun — For example, “zumba is my favorite exercise” is not allowed.
As part of a trade name — For instance, “The California Zumba Center” is not allowed.
As a generic term — For example, as a name for a fitness program “My gym offers Zumba” is not allowed.
To advertise programs or products not affiliated with Zumba Fitness, LLC.
Zumba is the latest stage in a long-standing process of romanticisation, appropriation and commodification of the idea of Cuba and Latin culture more broadly in the UK and America. It rode in on the back of the salsa craze and the viral popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club (both already heavily packaged and commodified) and represents a further step away from the culture it claims to represent. As in salsa dance classes, participants are encouraged to shake their hips and to identify with crude stereotypes of sexy Latinas. This is schizophonic mimesis on crack (Feld 1996).
2. Zumba and Virgin. I encountered the tightly-controlled corporate hegemony of Zumba in the context of a Virginactive gym; it was embedded within the multi-pronged Virgin Group corporate machine, which, as we know, touches everything from airplanes to credit cards. Zumba and Virginactive are a good fit: Zumba’s party ethos perfectly matches the “Virgin Vision” in which “Fun is fundamental” and according to which we are encouraged to “Live happily ever active” (http://www.virginactive.co.uk/about-us/virgin-by-name). Although I have indeed enjoyed using the gym (including the Zumba class) enormously, I am troubled by the very explicit way in which it is attempting to sell me beauty and happiness.
Virgin gyms are strange places, where your average aqua aerobics class is renamed simply “Aqua” and spinning goes by “V-Cycle”. (Seriously, whatever next? A complimentary V-towel? Overpriced bottles of V-water? After Apple led the way by claiming the prefix “i”, it isn’t hard to imagine the approaching dystopia, in which all objects are prefixed by the one-letter brand symbol of the corporation that we buy them from.) And they’re expensive. (Even if, as I did, you negotiate the advertised membership fee down.) In my borough, the cost of membership alone makes the gym inaccessible to most; amongst other things, this produces all sorts of barely visible, uncomfortable distinctions in terms of social class (and race) between gym users and gym employees.
3. Gyms, neoliberal bodies and a bulimic society. Gyms in general are a problematic phenomenon, anyway.
In an enlightening discussion of how neoliberal capitalism is played out on our bodies, Julie Guthman writes of a “culture of bulimia, where on the one hand consuming in encouraged and on the other deservingness is performed by being thin no matter how that is accomplished” (2009: 187). She draws on writing by Susan Bordo (2003 : 201):
Bulimia embodies the unstable double bind of consumer capitalism, while anorexia and obesity embody an attempted resolution of that bind. Anorexia could thus be seen as an extreme development of the capacity for self-denial and repression of desire (the work ethic in absolute control); obesity, as an extreme capacity to capitulate to desire (consumerism in control). Both are rooted in the same consumer-culture construction of desire as overwhelming and overtaking the self.
Gym-going, then, is the perfect example of bulimic culture; it allows for the consumption of self-control. When we succumb to the desire to buy gym memberships, we are paying exorbitant membership fees in order to purchase thin bodies, happiness and, paradoxically, the illusion of being rational subjects in control of our desires.
Returning to my experience of yesterday’s class, which was overwhelmingly positive, I am left with all sorts of unanswered questions. What am I to make of the happiness I felt during the class? Is there any way of redeeming this positive experience? More broadly, what should I do with music that I enjoy, but that simultaneously I find highly problematic? I suspect these questions will not easily go away.
Bordo, Susan. 2003. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press.
Feld, Steven. 1996. “Pygmy POP. A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28: 1. doi:10.2307/767805.
Guthman, Julie. 2009. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies.” In The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York and London: New York University Press.
Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.