Sunday, August 4:
ZUMBA BASICS 1 CERTIFICATION WITH ZES IRENA MELETIOU
Anticipation teases me out of sleep; this is the day I didn't realize I'd been waiting for. I check the time two, three, four times - I still have three hours left before I even need to start thinking about getting ready, but my mind is racing. I try to breathe through the thoughts zooming across my field of inner vision to tease out a semblance of what I am feeling. Excited. Nervous. Grateful. Happy. Afraid. Anxious. Hopeful. I'd been counting down the days to this training from the moment I signed up for it. There is nothing that fills me more than teaching. Witnessing my students grow stronger as they access their innate power of healing through the tools I show them and guiding them closer to accepting themselves fuels me to keep moving forward. I never in my life thought I'd one day consider teaching Zumba, and yet as the year progressed, I found myself tapping my feet to the rhythms of songs playing in public spaces and eventually doing full out choreography while walking or waiting for the train. Then, I jumped in the water and tried Aqua Zumba - and from the very first class, I knew I wanted to teach it. I connected so deeply to the movement in the water and to tuning into my body and balance. My body melted through the tears in my eyes and I knew that my journey had taken an unexpected, but exciting turn.
It began just shy of one year ago, when I found myself coming close to hitting another rock bottom. My heart was ravaged by grief, and my mind was wracked with shame at what I was using to "cope with" - or rather, avoid my pain. I'd fallen and literally cracked. I found Zumba by chance, but I was struggling to find my place in classes I'd taken; I felt the energy and excitement but I couldn't connect to it - I couldn't see how I'd ever be able to learn to do it. I was frustrated, disappointed, and facing a scary and shifting landscape in my life. Then, I walked into a Zumba class at Z Club NY's 19th street location thinking, I'm going to give this thing one last shot, and if I don't connect here, that's it. I stood in the back, in the corner, on the right and tried to convince myself that whatever happened, I'd figure out how to help myself. I didn't believe a word of it - I had in fact started to systematically give up on ever being able to live a healthy, disorder-free life. I stared at my feet for a lack of anything better to do, and I waited for class to start.
Three seconds later, my life changed. Irena Meletiou walked in to teach this class, which normally was taught by someone else, and I felt the energy changing in the room. I don't remember what songs we did that day and I certainly won't pretend that I was good at them, but I felt for the first time in many, many, many months -fully connected. The music floated through me as I tried to catch on to the beats, and struggled - but for the first time, happily - to succeed. At times, I wanted to stop and just admire the raw and beautiful spirit of this incredible dancer teaching the class. At times, I wanted to cry for how much I was feeling the movement in my body, and how it was allowing me to connect to my emotions. I didn't want the class to end -but at the end of it, I was exhausted and my interest in to pursue this "Zumba" thing ignited again. Of course, it quickly became clear to me that what I had connected with wasn't necessarily Zumba - it was with this charismatic, powerful, motivating instructor. I didn't know exactly what I'd be in for when I agreed to sign up for more of her classes, and eventually her Irena Dance Training sessions, but I had to find out.
As the months progressed, I began to find myself with more "sober" days than ones where I'd struggle, and I recognized the strength rebuilding in my body. Although my life was still shifting and I was still fighting to balance my health, I had found a place where for one blissful hour, all I had to do was focus on myself, my body, my rhythm and open my heart to learn. I've never been a dancer, or for that matter, coordinated - but I've always had a love for choreography, for music, for dance. As a kid, I would choreograph routines and teach them to my cousins for us to perform for our grandparents. In Irena's classes, I found myself tapping in to parts of myself that I had basically shoved to the side. In every class, I would realize how much I'd neglected my body's natural grace and how much I had systematically erased my ability to express any kind of emotion through my movement. I was boxy, I was rigid, I was uncoordinated, and I was terribly sad. Little by little, class by class, I grew more confident and more inspired by Irena's teaching. Both in and out of the Zumba class, she shared her journey through dance and wisdom about overcoming injury, adversity, illness, and finding strength, passion, and freedom. In a moment that was particularly meaningful to me, she took the time out to break down the salsa rhythm with me and encouraged me to break through my anxiety.
"There is no one blocking you from being the best you can. Only you. Only your mind. Let your mind be...connect. I can see your body wants you to."
I was in awe. I realized, slowly but surely, that every class of hers was helping me heal. Every class of hers was another step I was taking towards having the strength to finally say - I am better than this eating disorder and this pain and I am worth fighting for.
I'll be honest - when Irena became a ZES, or Zumba Education Specialist, a couple of months later - I really had no idea what it meant, but I could see how much it filled her with hope, happiness, excitement, and strength. I remember, particularly, a class in the TriBeCa studio that she taught on the day she got the news where I thought she must have been tapped in to the core source of the universe. The class worked every muscle - emotional, physical, mental, spiritual - on a cosmically elevated level. It was December, the winter holidays were upon us, and that class had a true magical quality to it. So even though I didn't know what "being a ZES" meant - I thought it was a wonderful thing for how much energy it filled her with and how much force we, as her students, received in return. As the months went on, I continued to attend Irena's classes, I began this blog - and I actually, finally started to recover. Days of sobriety became weeks and weeks became months...and through every class, I accessed another tiny part of myself that I'd once kept hidden. I got better. I got on rhythm. I was called to the front line.
The day of my B1 training was quietly momentous. Every step towards the studio where it was being held was another step towards accepting myself as capable, strong, graceful - as a teacher of Zumba. I was excited and nervous too that it would be Irena certifying me. As the closest and most directly impactful witness in my process, she has been the source for my continuing to fight and want to excel in a place where I never thought I could. Now, in a sense, she would be initiating me into a world where I could share the very healing I'd learned. Plus, I was so looking forward to a full day of Irena teaching. She is a fierce energy in her classes, but what I've learned and absolutely adore about her is that she is a phenomenal teacher. Irena expects the best of herself and so she also expects the best in all of her students - she knows that we can be better than we think we are, and so that is how she teaches us to be. It is inspiring, and for me, it changed how I saw myself in many ways. The training began with a fiery master class that included some of Irena's older songs- and I just loved it - it connected me right back to my journey and how I'd finally come to stand here, directly in front of her as she taught on the day I'd be getting certified.
I think that even the biggest Zumba fanatic would have a hard time sitting on a studio floor and listening to hours of theory and lecture. However, on this day, I could have been sitting on gravel and listening to her teach trigonometry - she was captivating. As she went through the slides, she shared with us parts and pieces of her own story and her own journey through dance and Zumba, and knowing the end result, I couldn't help but just want to hear more. I can't say that I was really that blown away by the information, as most of it was pretty commonsensical, but I loved that she was teaching it - and because of that, I retained it. She made the lecture engaging through her personal anecdotes and fun through her humor and energy. I couldn't wait for the part where she would break down the steps for us. Having just started my 4th IDT session, I knew that this is where the real fun would be. Irena teaches choreography in a way where someone who has never danced can walk out of her class twirling, twisting, and gettin' jiggy with it like they'd just filmed a music video. I was not disappointed - in fact, I was more riveted than ever - determined to understand how the different rhythms work in my body.
Irena's classes are world in and of their own - she runs them with such precision and focus that you feel as though she's connecting with you the entire time. In her regular classes, she exudes so much strength and confidence and fills the entire room, or arena, or field, or club venue with a ton of radiant fiery energy. You can almost hear the lights turning on in peoples' bodies when they experience her class for the very first time. I'm often envious of people who are new to her class because they get to discover her exhilarating energy for the very first time. Her B1 trainings are just a magnified and extraordinary opportunity to experience her beautiful spirit and passion through her teaching. As we practiced the steps and felt our way through the rhythms, Irena offered advice, corrections, suggestions, and general support in a way that embraced every single one of us 55 in the room. We all got a chance to practice guiding the steps, we all got a chance to lead, to cue, to dip our little toes into the potential ahead of us. The day itself is a long day, it is a challenging day, but it was such a rewarding day. We danced for hours, we bonded over becoming part of the Zumba community, we collected puddles of sweat on the floor, and at the end of the day, we all became Zumba instructors.
Meeting Irena and taking her class for the very first time was like a opening a gift with many gifts inside of it. She not only showed me that I could connect to myself through movement and dance, but she continues to inspire me to be a better, stronger, and more confident version of me than I ever thought I could be. I carry her teaching with me - the countless moments she's spent teaching me steps and helping me through rhythm, the words of wisdom that echo through my mind during my tougher moments...
"Strength is something you build, not something you can pretend to have" -- "Hold yourself with pride and you'll dance with true power" -- "Connect your mind, body, and spirit to see what you have in you" -- "Your core is your power center. Find it! Use it! Get stronger from it!" -- "Get in front - use your front line attitude!" -- "It's okay if you make a mistake. I would rather see you stop and look around so you can fix what you're doing wrong. I do it too! It doesn't mean you are bad - it means you are making sure you can do it right, you stay strong, and you don't get injured"-- "Every class is another opportunity for people to challenge themselves and get STRONGER. I teach to see that!" ....
I could go on.... and these are mostly from memory. Irena infuses every class she teaches with the energy of her passion. As we cooled down to one of my recent favorite choreographies of hers to Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," I really felt lucky to have met her, to have her in my life as a teacher and inspiration, and that she certified me on this glorious day.