Zumba instructor revs up fitness fans with a passion for dance and a heart for people

By Drew Myron

“This is my happy hour!” says Araceli Elisea as she greets her students with hugs and smiles.

In a small gym, Araceli joins together a mix of shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities for a thumping, pumping, power- packed cardio and dance workout.

In Zumba, everything moves: hips, hands, legs, feet. Against a Latin beat, the room vibrates with sweat and smiles as bodies shake, sway, twist and turn. It’s a Monday evening, and Araceli’s dance party is in full swing.

Araceli Elisea at the gym.

“I’m not skinny,” says Araceli (pronounced Ar-uh-sel-ee). “I’m old. I’m 43. I’m not fit but I’m healthy, and I believe everyone should work out.”

A worldwide fitness phenomenon, Zumba is a total workout, combining all elements of fitness—cardio, muscle conditioning, balance and flexibility—with low and high intensity moves for an interval-style, calorie-burning dance fitness party. More than an exercise routine, the real appeal is the music: an energetic blend of Latin and global dance beats with choreography that incorporates soca, samba, salsa, merengue, mambo and hip-hop.

Founded by Colombian dancer and choreographer Alberto Perez in the mid 1990s, Zumba has certified instructors in more than 180 countries around the world.

An estimated 15 million people take a Zumba class every week.

Zumba began by accident. Alberto was teaching an aerobics class when he forgot his music and had to make do with his own random assortment of salsa and merengue tunes. Blending dance styles and music genres, a fitness craze was born.

With enthusiasm and dedication, Araceli has met Alberto (“many times,” she gushes) while attending the annual convention in Florida, and she brings the zeal of Zumba to her community.

“I’m not a gym person. I love to dance,” says Araceli, who has been a licensed instructor for five years. “Here I can dance as much as I want to. It’s a party, not a workout.”

Indeed, it’s a party with friends. In every class, her advanced students are in the front row. “They follow me wherever I go,” Araceli says, laughing.

“She’s wonderful!” says Erica Rivera, who lives in Odell and has taken Araceli’s classes throughout the Hood River Valley. “We’ve been following her since the beginning. She’s got a lot of energy, and we love to dance.”

It’s easy to see the appeal. Zumba exudes a lively, joyful energy. It’s exercise with a dance-like-no-one- is-watching vibe. Unlike a traditional dance class, the steps are important but the real emphasis is on feeling the music and moving the body.

“Even with simple choreography,” says Araceli, “you’ll get a workout.”

It’s this feel-good focus that encourages all fitness levels.

The one-hour class sports a range of body shapes and conditions, from toned to soft, from teens to seniors. While predominately women, men occasionally take part, too.

Maria Avalos of Pine Grove attends class three days a week.

“It’s fun and easy to follow,” she says. “We have leg days and squat days. She keeps us going.”

Born in the state of Michoacán in central western Mexico, Araceli has lived nearly half her life in Odell. She and her husband of 25 years, Jose, have three children: Christopher, 23; Jovane, 18; and Yoselie, 8.

Araceli leads a Zumba class.

Araceli works days at Best Western’s Riverside Restaurant in Hood River, where she has been a cook for 20 years. She started as a dishwasher and was quickly promoted to line cook and banquet chef.

On weekends, Araceli operates her special-event business, Creaciones Yureli, preparing decor and ambience for weddings, quinceañera and other festive occasions.

In the evenings, she’s a certified Zumba instructor at Snap Fitness in Hood River. The class is $5 per session, and is open to the public. Gym membership is not required.

Araceli doesn’t just love Zumba, she lives it.

“When you love what you do, it’s not a job,” she says. “You have to have the passion. People ask me, when will I stop dancing? I say, ‘Never!’ ”