Argentines Tango And Zumba Their Way To Weight Loss

Latin Americans who find the gym tedious are discovering that their own homegrown dances are a way to stay fit with a smile on your face.

"Easy and intense": Argentines are crazy about zumba
"Easy and intense": Argentines are crazy about zumba
Gisele Sousa Dias

BUENOS AIRES — From a lazy person's perspective, humanity is divided into two categories: those strange people in love with physical activities, who keep telling you how good they feel and how their body "needs" it, and the rest of us.

The idler has no problem grasping this clear concept: You need to walk at least a half-hour a day to lose weight and not be sedentary, or get off the bus two stops early or join a gym and then spend your energy actually going rather than making feeble excuses not to.

The lethargic person knows this but does not do it: He or she is always pressed for time or tired, or bored just thinking about sit-ups. But — good news! — something has changed in this sorry tale. In Argentina, many gyms are including dance classes in their programs, which has led the formerly inert not just to come and dance, but perhaps to their own disbelief, come back for more. Dancing is helping them lose weight and be happy, and for the first time they too are finding that their body "needs" it.

It is not about learning dance techniques like in an academy, but imitating dance movements to be active. You can now dance Latin rhythms, hip hop, Arab belly dancing or tango in more than half the country's gyms, according to Mercado Fitness magazine.

The trend has led Megatlon, a chain of gyms, to launch Megafest — a ballroom dancing class — while instructor Andrea Bellucci, has created "Move it, we can all dance" (Muévelo, todos podemos bailar), a program in which she says "I work on the basis of each person's temperament and emotions."

But the most popular dance activity of the moment is unquestionably zumba: a routine created by three Colombians who now have trained instructors in 180 countries, and which includes such fierce loyalists as Shakira, J.Lo and Rihanna.

"It's a combination of international rhythms, it's easy and intense, and the instructor can surprise them" with the choice of music, says Darío Micillo of Zumba Fitness Argentina.

He says instructors work with a range of music including wedding songs, Frank Sinatra or Palito Ortega, an Argentine crooner of the 1960s.

Getting hooked

So, who is driving the beat of the zumba craze? "Women aged between 30 and 50, especially. We have won back the women who used to do aerobics in the 1990s. With their children grown up now, they are looking for something to do to feel both healthy and cheerful," Micillo says.

But can you actually lose weight while having so much fun? "Dancing burns between 300 and 500 calories an hour, equivalent to a brisk walk or riding a bicycle. If an adult dances an hour a day and eats 300-500 calories less a day, she could lose, healthily, two to three kilos a month," says nutritionist Silvio Schraier.

The key to this furor however is also in the fact that "dancing helps fight stress, because it increases the influx of endorphins, the substance that makes us feel well," says Schraier, a doctor at the Buenos Aires Italian Hospital. "In terms of the heart and breathing, it boosts oxygenation and blood circulation. It also reduces arterial pressure and helps lower cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose."

What about the brain? Argentine neurologist Ignacio Brusco explains that when you learn a dance, you activate several zones in your brain, spacial zones (that let you see space and feel your body), motor zones (which improve motor coordination and the part of the brain that learns processes, like driving), and emotional zones (activated by the emotions provoked by the dance and music).

This is an option with sufficiently clear benefits to have doctors sending their patients to do it. "Just joining is the first advantage," says Jorge Franchella, a sports doctor at the Clínicas hospital. "When I tell someone they have to walk every day, they tell me it's boring and don't do it. If I tell them they have to dance, it's a different story."

Dance instructor Romina Samelnik says "some do come initially on the doctor's orders, but they end up hooked for other things. They loosen up here, pretend they're doing a show, learn to laugh, even at themselves, and manage to forget all the day's problems."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!