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Dancing Away From Diabetes: How Zumba Saved Her Life

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A Choctaw, plus-size Zumba instructor credits moving to the international beats with regaining her health A Latin-inspired fitness craze has spread from a single aerobics studio in Columbia, South America to over 140,000 locations in 150 countries around the world—including many in Indian country. Natives who have joined the Zumba Fitness dance party are burning 500 to 700 calories a class, letting the music move them down a path to wellness and diabetes management and prevention.

According to Tonya S. Wapskineh, the diabetes prevention coordinator for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, dancing to world music in a Zumba Fitness class is “like engaging in any other physical activity—the health benefits are huge.” Wapskineh explains that Zumba “improves your general well-being by keeping weight off, increasing your energy, reducing stress, improving your mood, improving muscle tone, helping you sleep better, making your heart stronger, and reducing back pain and injuries.”

But the benefits may be even greater for Natives with risks for serious health problems. According to Wapskineh, Zumba may help prevent type 2 diabetes and lower the risk for other obesity-related diseases, including heart disease and some kinds of cancer, while lowering HDL, or good cholesterol, in the body. For at least one woman in Indian country who was prediabetic, Zumba may have saved her life.

“I am a product of childhood obesity,” says Kristin Gentry, a portrait photographer, painter and registered artist for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “I didn’t want to be that anymore. I’ve been overweight my whole life. I saw too many of my immediate family members dying from health-related problems that I personally feel are linked to obesity. A couple years ago, in 2010, my mom’s baby sister passed away really young. It was a big eye-opening moment: This is the time. I need to change my life.”

With that simple realization, Gentry says she looked at her husband, who had just accepted a job in another state, and said, “When we move to New Mexico, I want to work full-time on losing weight.” “At that point,” Gentry says, “I was pre-diabetic. I had asthma, morbid obesity. I had already had my gall bladder removed. I had already had my appendix removed. My doctors told me it was definitely not a good idea to start a family because it would be hard to become pregnant and sustain pregnancy. I was over 300 pounds.”

But that changed when Gentry left Oklahoma—and kept her word. Not only has she improved her health, she may have blazed a trail by becoming the first plus-sized licensed Zumba instructor in Indian country. After trying everything from kickboxing to yoga, spinning, elliptical gym equipment, and weight lifting, Gentry says Zumba is the exercise program she does most consistently. Most of her time spent working out, a minimum of five hours a week, is dedicated to Zumba.

“They’re all teaching hours,” Gentry explains. Teaching Zumba has “made me very accountable.” Now 68 pounds lighter at 233.4 pounds and halfway to her goal weight, Gentry says her blood work is “perfect” and she’s no longer prediabetic. Though she couldn’t run before Zumba because, she says, “my asthma was always too much of a problem,” Gentry has been able to “do some 5K runs.” She says her blood pressure, “used to be 180 over 120. I now average about 125 over 85.”

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This enormous shift in her health has occurred because she’s stuck to a program that includes regular workouts teaching Zumba. Gentry thinks many Natives are turning to Zumba to lose weight and manage their diabetes because 70 percent of the music for each hour-long class is required to be international. “We already like to dance!” Gentry enthuses.

Though the class is Latin-based, Gentry says instructors like her “get to add our own music. I can put in Native, African, Bangra.”

With the release of endorphins that come from just dancing and having fun, Gentry insists there’s something almost spiritual that happens when people move their bodies to world music to get healthy. In this group class, she says, people “feed off other people’s energy” as they sweat in a space where there are “so many different cultures coming together.” “This is a way to really help the Native population,” Gentry says.

Referring to the high rate of diabetes among Natives, she adds, “This is one way I can combat that.” A 2012 winner of the National Center for American Indian Economic Development's 40 under 40 Award for her work at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Arts Medicine program at the UNM Cancer Center, Gentry identifies her work as a visual artist as a way for her to “preserve the culture,” and she identifies her work as a Zumba instructor as a way for her to “preserve the actual people.”

And Gentry reaches all kinds of Native people in her classes. Some of her students have been blind, confined to wheelchairs, or have other disabilities. She teaches disabled veterans. Through Zumbatonic, she teaches Native children, even those with no particular skill in sports. And she teaches some of her sorority sisters, all proud members of Alpha Pi Omega. It was the support of her sorority sisters and her husband that enabled Gentry to get licensed to teach Zumba even though she was overweight.

Gentry says that her Zumba instructor, Sarah Parr, encouraged her to get licensed to teach by telling her, “People are gonna see you and know you’re not stick thin and know if you can do it, they can do it, too.” Parr, a licensed Zumba Instructor for New Mexico Sports and Wellness in Albuquerque, says she never considered Gentry’s weight an obstacle. “In fact,” she says, “I call it a secret weapon.” “I was and still am on my weight loss journey,” Parr adds, “and many did look at me with doubt when they first took my class, until the music started! I love that the idea that being fit is not about being a certain size, just as being ‘skinny’ is also not labeled healthy. Being able to help others and be less intimidating because you are plus size is really a comfort for many who begin their weight loss journey.”

Wapskineh wants more Natives to take the first steps on their own journeys. Wapskineh says, “As a diabetes prevention coach, we promote 150 minutes of activity. Zumba is a great way to get in those minutes.” A licensed Zumba instructor herself, Wapskineh adds that Zumba has absolutely helped her improve her own health. “It has made me accountable to a great group of students. I have to be in great shape to keep them excited and pumped during classes. I am healthier. I feel great. I’ve lost weight. I run faster and have more endurance. I love my students and the other instructors. They are my Zumba family and support network,” she says.

Both Gentry and Wapskineh have many friends across Indian country who are, literally, dancing away from diabetes. “Zumba Fitness isn’t like any other fitness activity,” Wapskineh says. “Students come with their friends or family, and it’s a dance party. It’s a blast and the best part of it is…you don’t feel like you are exercising.”