Zumba hits big in Mid-Columbia (w/ photo gallery)

Hundreds of people across the Mid-Columbia every week are following the leader -- and that leader is usually wearing neon-colored pants.

The spandex-clad masses are flocking to local gyms and recreation centers to "step-hip-hip-step" their way into a national exercise phenomenon that could be called anything but low key.

The popular Latin dance-inspired workout -- called Zumba -- feaures upbeat international music to encourage participants to drop it like it's hot with fast-paced salsa, merengue and belly dance moves.

"It's a craze," said Arzu Gosney, a 33-year-old Richland Zumba instructor. "They just really need to join the crowd. Come see the party."

Hundreds of Mid-Columbia residents already have, evidenced by packed classes at gyms and city recreation centers.

"It's the only time I enjoy sweating," said Melanie Maynard, 48, who recently attended one of Gosney's classes at Richland's Columbia Basin Racquet Club. "It's not your regular aerobics. It's really dancing."

A recent Zumba class featured middle-aged men wearing white mid-calf socks, 4-foot-tall elementary school girls, teenage boys and trim young women who looked as if they could easily step onto an Argentinean dance floor if their workout pants and tanks were swapped with twirly skirts.

"(Zumba) crosses culture, ages and fitness levels," said Gosney, who has been a certified teacher for nearly a year. "They feel like they are part of a group. They are dancing and they are having fun."

Zumba was developed in Colombia by celebrity fitness trainer Beto Perez and was introduced in the U.S. nearly 10 years ago. It took off in 2002 thanks to videos sold on infomercials, and there are now more than 20,000 trained instructors in nearly 35 countries, according to the Zumba website.

"It's sort of coming across the country. Now it's coming over here," said Karen Coulson, recreation supervisor for Kennewick Recreation and Community Services, which began offering regular and beginning Zumba classes this year. "I'm seeing it all over now. It's catching on."

Coulson and Richland Parks and Recreation Department's Laurel Strand said classes have been "extraordinarily popular." Strand, the recreation program and facility manager, said classes at the Richland Community Center are overbooked and have waiting lists.

"They are just going gangbusters," Coulson said. "People just want something new and different, and it's fun."

In addition to being fun, instructors say Zumba is a good workout.

Kelli Pigge said she noticed her lower back was sore when she first began teaching Zumba at Kennewick's Tri-City Court Club in December. But after a few weeks, she felt stronger.

"That just means my core strength improved," the 47-year-old Richland woman said. "You are working your core."

Moving to the up-tempo music allows participants to burn several hundred calories a class, which typically are an hour. Gosney said she's known someone who burned up to 1,700 calories during one of her classes.

"It's a great workout," she said. "It changes people's lives. People start losing weight."

Gosney and Pigge said Zumba also is a way to de-stress.

"This is a great way to escape," Pigge said. "It's the ambiance of the music. Everybody feels free to move."

But some Zumba newcomers feel more hesitant than free.

"I'm not coordinated at all, so I'm a little nervous," said 38-year-old Sherry Hendricks of Richland, who was "coerced" by her friend to try the class.

Instructors say some people are reluctant to publicly shake it, but usually end up enjoying themselves.

"It takes people out of their comfort zone a bit," Gosney said. "At first they are like, 'Can I really do that?' But after three weeks -- you got to come see them. It becomes an addiction."

Most people quickly catch on to the repetitive movements and familiar dance moves from the cha-cha and rumba, instructors said.

During her first class, Hendricks threw down her hands and laughed after missing a couple steps. But soon her arms were up in the air again as the bass line pumped through the speakers: "Move your body, shake it, shake it!" And shake it she did with the 50 or so others in the class.

"It's for fun, it's just fun," Maynard said. "We're all laughing. All these people wouldn't be here if you had to be good."

* Laura Kate Zaichkin: 509-582-1521; lzaichkin@tricityherald.com