Mambo salsa fills the air: all staccato drums, soaring horns, and maracas. Women with sweat-slicked hair shimmy to the beat, movement that’s ecstatically exaggerated by the chatter of coins on their belly-dance skirts. Then comes the chorus—jog in place, arms in air, four hallelujah-I’m-a-believer shouts: “Hey, hey, hey, hey!”
And the leader of this high-energy Zumba Gold dance class at Seattle’s Greenwood Senior Center? It’s Penny Fuller, 75.
Across town in West Seattle, Harold’s Fitness club reverberates with grunts of exertion followed by the metallic clank of weights released. A woman concentrates on leg extensions. She tucks her ankles under the padded weight and slowly lifts up, forehead shiny from effort.
This is Harold Calkins’ domain, his fiefdom of fitness. In black sweats and a jauntily tilted black beret, he puts clients through their paces, as he has for decades—and continues to do at age 80.
Fuller and Calkins gleefully defy stereotypes, limits, and conventional expectations. Maybe there’s a thing or two we can learn from them.
A Zumba instructor for more than a decade, Fuller was introduced to it on a trip to Mazatlan, Mexico, where she now teaches during the Seattle winter. “I thought it was so cool that when I got back home I took a class. I knew I had to do this,” she recalls. “I think of it as an hour away from your mind. The music sweeps you away. It’s mental freedom and great exercise.”
Zumba Gold is different from the original Latin-dance party, she says. “There’s a longer warm up and cool down. The beat is slower, not as many spins and we avoid jumping. We also work on balance and stretching.”
What it does have in common with “regular” classes is the joy of dancing with abandon, heightened by those belly-dance scarves laden with coins. Fuller keeps a bag of them nearby for anyone who wants one. “It’s not going to make noise if you’re not moving,” she says, smiling.
The dancing is good for bones, heart, and lungs, but it also revives the soul. Pam James, 75, fell ill a couple of years ago with pneumonia. “I couldn’t do much. I was weak. I was depressed.” Somebody told her about a chair-exercise class at the senior center, which she began attending, and she was later encouraged to try Fuller’s class. “I didn’t think I could do it, but Penny said do what you can, take breaks, and keep your arms moving.”
Two years later? “I feel Penny saved my life. I’m much stronger, not depressed,” she says, laughing. “It’s hard to be depressed in Zumba.”
“Penny brings so much joy to it and brings us together,” adds Jane Irwin, 69. “We’re a community. That can be hard to find if you’re retired or older.”
As for Calkins, he was into body-building before there was a fitness industry other than the likes of Charles Atlas or Jack LaLanne. “I’ve stayed with it this long because it gives me personal satisfaction,” he says. “I have a lady here who started working out with me at 56. She’s 93 now.”
Yelp reviews show that he’s got a devoted following: “Harold is hilarious, competent and absurdly well-priced…They don’t make them like this anymore. And that’s a shame.” Another client posts: “Harold will keep you motivated and give you ‘the eye’ if you are slacking.”
Calkins’ no-nonsense motto for getting or staying fit as you age is printed on the back of his sweatshirt. It reads: “You don’t stop working out because you’re old. You’re getting old because you stopped working out.” He believes his greatest gift to older adults is independence. “I was on a panel and asked what I do for my clients,” he says. “The answer is I give them the freedom of mobility, mobility their bodies need so they can go out and do what they want—golf or just climb stairs.”
“I give students the kind of class I want to take,” Fuller says. “Warm me up, work me over, stretch me out, and I’m ready for the day.”
By the way, neither Fuller nor Calkins is remotely considering retirement. “I have the best job in the world,” says Calkins. “I get to come here every day with all my friends and help them work out.” Fuller agrees. “I love my life,” she says. “This keeps me going and inspired.”
Connie McDougall is a former news reporter and current freelance writer of nonfiction and personal essays. A lifelong student and proud English major, she has pursued lessons in flying, scuba diving, tai chi, Spanish, meditation, hiking and, most recently, Zumba.
The Zumba Zone
To find a class near you, go to Zumba.com and click on “Find a Zumba Class.”
Type in your zip code, choose the class type you’re looking for (such as Zumba Gold), then hit “Search.” At the top of the page, click on the date you want to attend. A list of classes and a map offers the classes available. Also check your local senior centers, community centers, and gyms for classes.
Just a word to the guys: Although Zumba students tend to be women, men are always welcome and many do attend classes.
If you’re thinking about becoming a licensed Zumba teacher, the advice is to first attend classes and become familiar with the format. Talk to your teacher about how she or he did it. When you’re ready to learn more, go to the website Zumba.com. On the upper right of the screen, click on “Instructor Training” then “View All Training” for the types of classes offered and brief explanations. For training in your area, click on “Become An Instructor.” Zumba instructors complete specific training and operate as independent contractors. For more information call 954-925-3755.