Santa Cruz Dance Company founder Joy Smith, the only trainer and licenser of Zumba instructors in Northern California, leads a class. (Photo by Chip Scheuer)

It all started by accident. Alberto “Beto” Perez showed up to teach an aerobics class in Cali, Columbia, and forgot his traditional aerobics music. So he improvised with some mix tapes of salsa and merengue music he had in his backpack. The class went wild for the resulting workout, and Zumba was born.

That was the mid-’90s. By 2001, the dance-fitness program was trademarked, and has since spread like wild fire through gyms and dance studios in 150 different countries. Today, an estimated 14 million global citizens shake what their mama gave them in the party-like atmosphere of Zumba classes.

Local Zumba instructor (and founder of the Santa Cruz Dance Company) Joy Smith is partly responsible for Zumba’s spread: she is the company’s sole trainer and licenser of Zumba instructors in Northern California. She also teaches instructors in Minnesota, Washington and the Netherlands, and she helped get the ball rolling in France and Belgium, too.

Every once and a while, Smith throws a “beginners” class into the vigorous class schedule at the SCDC, geared toward the more hesitant of the Zumba-curious, which is how I found myself lured to her studio the first time, only to return a week later to take a faster-paced class with the energetic Angel Brown.

As soon as the music began to ricochet off the mirrored walls and polished dance floor, I sensed there was more to Zumba than just a workout. The notion was soon to be confirmed: If I entered the class preoccupied by a slight emotional funk, I left feeling invigorated, motivated and well, sexy.

“Zumba is a definite mood lifter, de-stressor, and it has been very effective in helping people with depression, menopause and the like,” says Smith. “Many people at my studio take two and even three classes a day because they love it so much. They take those positive feelings back into their lives and the effects are positively profound.”

The exhilaratingly loud Latin music gets the blood pumping even before we begin gliding through salsa, merengue, reggaeton, samba, Bollywood and hip-hop moves. Make no mistake about it: some of the steps are intimidatingly difficult. I find myself stumbling and faking through a few, but luckily the choreography is fast-paced enough to change just when you start feeling dumb.

“I would say that most people were born with dance in their hearts,” says Smith. “All people need is a little exposure. The more you do it, the easier it feels and the freer you feel.”

In a way, it’s like learning a guitar scale; if you think about it too much, you’ll mess up. The shrill “whoops” emanating from all corners of the dance floor are a reminder that it’s okay to mess up, nobody’s judging you except you. Plus, instructors encourage their students to make their own modifications.

“If there are 50 people in the class then there should be 50 styles,” says Smith. “Personal expression is very important. The instructor leads the choreography and the students make it their own.”

There are a few moments where I actually feel like I’m a real dancer (I’m movin in sync!) and I can see why gyrating your hips en masse has become sort of like church for some people. I’m also smiling at myself in the mirror, laughing, and completely drenched in sweat. The next day, two tender lumps of steel have taken up residence in my calves, and a back muscle I never even knew I had asserts itself acutely—proof that something fun can actually be good for me, too.

“I have seen so many bodies change, it blows me away,” says Smith. “I have been in the dance and fitness industry for over three decades and I have never seen anything like Zumba.”

And as I leave the studio, the pulse of reggaeton still jumping in all my cells, I realize I might have found the therapy I’ve been looking for.

For class schedules and information on Smith’s holistic lifestyle courses and wellness retreats, visit Santa Cruz Dance Company.