Zumba and the power in taking fun seriously
February 2, 2018
Do not be alarmed if, when passing Room 213 of the Buck Fitness Center, you hear “MEOW” or “WOOP” coming from behind a closed, pulsating door. These noises are always synchronized with the beat of a new Jennifer Lopez collab or the breakout hit of yesteryear. They are Zumba instructor Béa Blakemore’s cries for radical equality: for each and every one of her students to embrace fun.
Zumba can be scary. The paragon of the too-fit PTA mom or wiry retiree, dance workouts seem—and sometimes are—outdated or inaccessible. Blakemore strives to subvert this stereotype. Her dances are fresh, a little sexy. Everyone is welcome in her studio, as long as they come in with an open mind.
“Dance is like life,” said Blakemore. “It’s about letting go.”
Her voice is bright and her laugh doesn’t take itself seriously. Blakemore waxes philosophical, off-hand, before storming into her next dream.
She enters the studio wearing a neon yellow puffy jacket and leggings with huge stars down the sides, like a jazzy racecar driver. This is her uniform, and she is militant about having a good time. She turns on the music. The jacket comes off.
Long brown hair trails behind her as her body darts into strange shapes that students attempt to replicate on their own. When Blakemore dances, she is in her own world and invites her students—regardless of ability—to create their own in turn.
“I could be a millionaire and I would still be teaching,” she said. “That’s how I know I’m doing the right thing.” She especially loves sharing moves from various cultures, moves she picked up working, teaching and learning across the world.
Confident regulars stand near the front of the class, offering templates for those in the back. She has no expectation of perfection and doesn’t ever turn around to critique people’s moves. The only eye contact comes sly, through the mirror, when students smile and give in to the dance. “WOOP” she cheers, celebrating their joy.
“I believe in everybody,” she said. “That’s my philosophy.” To her, dance is a tableau, “the weaved energy of people.” The more diverse the group of dancers, the more colorful the art.
She teaches toddlers at the YMCA, people who are aging and living with Alzheimer’s and every age in between. She runs a burlesque troupe in Portland and moonlights at Bowdoin at 5:15 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays..
“Bowdoin is its own animal,” she said. “I see people thinking too much.” Some disciples follow her from venue to venue.
Zumba is only one rotation in her repertoire. Blakemore has been a dancer since her childhood in Paris.
“In France, they put you in ballet classes as soon as you can walk,” she said.
Blakemore first left ballet, taking the discipline she learned to the more expressive, “exuberant” modern jazz, samba and flamenco.
Later she left Paris to travel the world working the Club Med circuit. From Africa to the Alps, all across Europe to Greece, she danced for tourists looking to enjoy a taste of culture without leaving the comfort of the all-inclusive resort.
When her career took her to LA, she got stuck. She loved dancing with industry celebrities and Santa Monica’s long beaches that reminded her of the south of France. “Really inspiring choreographers,” she said. She fell in love with her now ex-husband.
He brought the family to his home state, Maine. Here she has built a home around her children and her friends, most of whom she gained through her close-knit burlesque dance troupe.
Enthusiasm, the unselfconscious kind that claps its hands in the middle of a shimmy and isn’t afraid to admit it’s silly or serious, or that it cares, radiated from Blakemore. “I have some awesome friends,” she said. “Women empowering and supporting each other through the burlesque dance troupe.”
“We’ve been through everything a family has been through. We’ve been through giving birth, marrying, divorcing, burying.” They danced at the Women’s March last Saturday and are some of the most open-minded people Blakemore has ever met.
“I know I can rely on them, 100 percent,” she said. “I can just be me. I can just be my exuberant me.”
The last song ends with a power chord. The class releases from their final stretch, all smiles. Flipping her hair like a rock star, Blakemore pumps her arm into the air. “Salute the disco ball!”
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