Lessons in spiritual formation learned at Zumba


By Gem Fadling — 

I peered through the open door into the gym. The sound of salsa music filled the room. Women of all shapes and sizes were dancing to the rhythm and, at the same time, getting fit. I so wanted to join them, but my fear of looking foolish kept me from “salsa-ing” and “merengue-ing” the pounds off…

When we began Unhurried Living, we pruned down our budget extremely tight. We got rid of things like cable TV, our membership to the local YMCA, and more. We knew the transition time was going to be financially trying, so we prepared by cutting extra expenses.

Letting go of our gym membership didn’t mean that I had to stop exercising, but that is exactly what I did. Not my best move.

Quite a few years ago, when I first started working out, I began with a step aerobics class. I had done it before and I knew what to expect. The moves were planned, rhythmic and relatively easy to learn.

However, secretly, I wanted to try Zumba. I would stand at the doorway of the class and watch people salsa and samba their way to health. I was just too afraid of looking like a fool. I was stiff as a board and I wasn’t willing to share that with anyone.

Then, one day, I simply decided to lay aside my pride and give Zumba a shot. I attended a Zumba Gold class, which is for beginners and senior adults. At the time, there were two or three of us in the class under the age of 60. Lots of beautiful gray hair and very friendly people. I stood in the back and did my best to keep up. And I laughed a lot (at myself).

It turns out that Zumba is the only form of aerobic exercise that holds my attention. That’s because it is so fun that I don’t know I’m exercising (which is the only way I can stay the course). With the loud music, the dance-like moves, and the community of women, it felt more like a party than exercise. Perfect.

About a month ago, after almost two years off, I started doing Zumba again. This time, it’s in my garage with an old TV and some YouTube playlists. I’m dancing like nobody’s watching (because nobody is watching). I’ve gathered my favorite YouTube instructors and I’m dancing my way to health.

The first week was slow going. My body was stiff. My brain was slowly remembering the moves. It wasn’t pretty. But I knew, like before, that if I kept up with it, I would gain strength and more grace. And that is exactly what is happening.

At this point, you must be wondering how in the world I am going to tie this into soul work. What does Zumba have to do with spiritual formation? Wait. For. It.

As I was working out this morning, some random tips from former fitness instructors flooded my thinking. I was even able to turn it into a nice little acronym: ARC.

A is for Ability – The instructor would often say things like, “Listen to your body. Only do what you can do. Stretch yourself, but not to the point of pain.”

This is great advice for formation. With any spiritual practice, it is always good to begin where you are. Here is some great advice that Dallas Willard gave to a congregation during a Q&A session:

Question: Where should I begin if I am new to the disciplines?

Answer: Be experimental. Don’t be heroic. Be easy. Take things slow. Begin small. Breaking bad habits will cause us discomfort. Come to God as a happy student of Jesus. Expect resistance. Focus on the friendly face of Jesus. When something doesn’t work, figure out why it didn’t before just trying the same thing again. (Dallas Willard)

Start where you are. Just like starting up with Zumba again, it’s clunky at first, but I am growing in strength and grace. That’s how it is with spiritual practices. Choose one thing. Go slow. Let it become a habit. And you will grow in strength and grace.

R is for Rhythm – When doing exercises of balance, the instructor would often say something like, “One side of your body is usually stronger or more capable of balance than the other. That’s ok, just go with it. It may change next time.” Your body is rarely in full and equal balance at all times.

Ah, the myth of life balance. Do you know anyone who has a perfect balance of every part of their life? What we really seek are healthy life rhythms. There are likely practices and capabilities in our lives that are overemphasized and others that are underemphasized. Let yourself engage in rhythms that bring your underemphasized practices to the forefront.

If you are in a busy season, be sure to make space for some reflection time. If you find yourself disengaged, make space for some good quality work and interaction. It’s about healthy rhythms of engagement and disengagement. Receiving and giving. Filling and overflowing.

C is for Core – How many times did I hear the instructor say, “Engage your core!” Almost every single time. You’ll be hard pressed to find a coach who doesn’t have their athletes do some form of core training. Strength comes from the inside out.

For your soul, the question becomes, “What is at the Center?” Or better yet, “Who is at the Center?” The quality of your abilities and rhythms is in direct correlation to you keeping your eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith (Heb. 12:2, NLT).

In what ways are you strengthening the core of your soul? For most of us, it is in letting the things we believe, become the things we know.

In the beginning, I was fumbling around as a newbie to Zumba, I believed it would help me get healthier and stronger. Over time and with practice, I became someone with muscle memory and strength who was able to learn new routines with ease. Healthy and strong were no longer hopes but actualities (knowing).

This is about keeping the main thing, the main thing.

So, remember:

  • Start where you are.
  • Bring an underemphasized practice to the front.
  • Let your believing become knowing through practice.
  • Eyes on Jesus!


Gem Fadling, along with her husband, Alan, founded Unhurried Living, a ministry that “resources busy people so they can rediscover the genius of Jesus’ unhurried way of life and leadership.”