Latin American Culture Appropriation: Is Zumba the New Carmen Miranda?

Zumba is arguably one of the most well-known group fitness formats other than yoga. The loud music and fun dance moves transform a workout into a party. There is also Zumba music, video games, and clothes. What is there not to like?

Zumba is defined as Latin-inspired. The creator forgot his typical aerobics music one class and played his salsa music instead. That is how Zumba was formed. Now, anyone with $250 can become a Zumba-certified instructor, regardless of their Latin experience. When is the line drawn to label Zumba as Latin?

Zumba music can be described through its “otherness.” It does not sound like typical American music. It sounds worldly, regardless if it’s Latin-, African-, or Bollywood-inspired. Pop culture is notoriously shallow, and formats like Zumba seem to reduce these diverse cultures to one label of exotic otherness.

It can be argued that Zumba allows for global appreciation of such cultures, but I do not believe that such reduction of the cultures can be truly appreciated in this form. Since almost anyone can teach Zumba, there is no guarantee that any art culture can be preserved. Almost anything goes in a Zumba class. Some classes do have a distinct Latin flair, but many seem to be just an aerobic dance class with a better name than Jazzercise. There is nothing wrong with these classes, but I do not think that they should be mislabeled as Zumba to misguide participants into thinking they are learning Latin dance when they are just shaking their hips to a song with Spanish lyrics.

Zumba now includes other worldly music like Bollywood, which often includes hip-shaking and Bollywood-inspired hand movements. While this seems fun and exotic, many of these hand movements have religious origins which are sacred, and if done incorrectly, can be offensive. While this seems trivial in a Zumba class of people who do not like running but want to do a cardio workout, it can lead to desensitization of other cultures.

An older example of a similar cultural phenomenon is Carmen Miranda. She gained United States fame for being a Brazilian bombshell with a comical fruit headpiece and sex appeal. Although she was from South America, she was capitalized through fruits offered from Central America. Her “otherness” became a representation for all of Latin America.

More than just being a Latin American cultural icon, she was exploited for a profit. It was not for her Uncle Sam-ba foreign policy, but for her exotic sexuality and aloofness. Since she made people laugh, she was not seen as an outright sex symbol. Her exploitation straddles the line of appropriation versus appreciation just like Zumba does.

Zumba is also sexy, but it is encouraged to have fun with your workout and not worry if you look like a fool. While this is a great message of body positivity, it is doing so through the profitization of Latin America culture, which is not okay. Appreciate other cultures of the world, but do not lump them together as one “other” culture.

Originally posted on MyBroadMedia in December 2015.

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