Zumba and Judaism

30 Jul

A few months ago, I got certified to teach Zumba, a group fitness experience that is based on Latin and International dance steps. Amidst all of the merengue, salsa, shaking and shimmying, one thing stood out more than anything else I learned.

The instructor made it a point to tell us over and over again that a Zumba class must be distinct. You have to be able to walk into a Zumba class anywhere in the world and identify it as such, without question. A class shouldn’t look too much like aerobics, dance, or any other group fitness class. This, she said, is how Zumba will continue to thrive and remain as popular as it is now. This reminded me a lot of Judaism. There are those who feel that Judaism needs to be uniform amongst all Jews, and even those who believe that it should be as close to the “original” as possible. One of the most distinctive aspects of Judaism, for example, is the Hebrew language; it connects Jews all over the world as the universal language of Jewish prayer. There are other specific components of Judaism that make it recognizable, even with cultural and geographical variations in dialect, liturgy, culture, and tradition.

Yet, how do we balance preservation and progress?  We can’t make up our own new kind of dance-aerobics class and still call it “Zumba,” or completely reinvent every aspect of a religion and call it “Judaism.” We have many different versions of Judaism today, results of the evolution of our traditions.  What is the line between innovation and authenticity, and how far can you cross it before the original is no longer recognizable? How can we continue to be forward-thinking and open to change, yet still honor the past and what brought us to where we are now?

Whether I’m practicing Judaism or Zumba, I am also practicing the delicate dance between tradition and innovation.


Amber Ikeman is the Youth Engagement Coordinator at The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee.


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