Five years ago, I walked into my first Zumba class. Frustrated with attempts at running (I hate running) and using gym Stairmasters and gym bikes (boring), I wanted to find a way to get my cardio exercise without hating what I was doing. I had enjoyed hip-hop classes in the past and after seeing infomercials on TV about Zumba, I thought what the heck, I will give this a try. I didn’t have the foresight then to know that the moment I stepped in to that first Zumba class I had made a choice that would change my life.

Before that first class I was stagnant, stressed, bloated, exhausted, and unhappy. I weighed the most I’ve ever been in my life and found myself gasping for breath doing easy walks. A yearly check-up revealed my greatest fear, that I was now a type II diabetic and was prescribed medicine to control it. I had to do something. I had to somehow claim my life back.

It was challenging and the road ahead was daunting. My first Zumba attempts were frustrating. I didn’t know the choreography and looked like an uncoordinated dork. There were bright colors, happy songs and cheerful people, something a dour, black clothed malcontent like me couldn’t understand. I was way out of shape and could barely finish a class, but I kept going back. I took classes with different teachers, each having their own style. I found each class got easier. I was finding my breath again, finding my rhythm again.

After taking a few months of regular gym Zumba classes I caught wind of something that sounded super cool and fun: Nightclub Zumba with no mirrors, nightclub lighting, instructors on a raised stage, and a DJ. As a club kid in the 80’s who used to dance at clubs until the early morning this was right down my alley. I could feel like I was out at club dancing without all the rigmarole of late night clubbing. What was this new animal and where do I sign up? I took my first Pulse PDX class at Refuge with Jennifer and Julio with Heath at the helm as DJ and was immediately hooked. Not only were the instructors extremely talented and fun on stage, off stage they were nice caring people who took the time to get to know their students. I slowly worked my way the front row as my confidence increased. One day, Jennifer invited me on stage to dance with her and despite my great fear of messing up the choreography, I went up and danced Proud Mary with her. It was such a small moment in time, one song, but a huge moment for me. Performing that one simple song with Jennifer I conquered some fears. I felt confident enough with my dance ability to get up there, and I was able to walk away from my introvert self for one song on stage.

Along the way, this simple act of taking a class, taking that first step of a warm-up song to the last note of the cool down song, not only changed my body but also changed my mind. After years of restaurant management I was not really a fan of my fellow human beings. I was jaded, closed off, didn’t smile much, and had suffered from social anxiety for years. I left that job and started a new career as a geographer and cartographer, a career that fed my analytical mind and creative mind and was finding some happiness in that. This new career change was happening at around the same time I started at Pulse PDX. I remember seeing all these super happy Zumba people at the beginning of class hugging each other and having happy conversations. My jaded self was dismissive of those interactions; I mean I was just here to get exercise, right? I didn’t need any more friends. Wow, was I wrong. I have made some of the most meaningful friendships of my life at Pulse PDX with loving, smart, funny, caring people who support and love each other. Regular exercise gave me an outlet for my stress, lessened my depression, and helped with my social anxiety. I am now one of those happy, hugging people before class and it’s important to me now to help cultivate that loving environment at Pulse PDX.

With Danny and Donnie

In our health journeys, we all suffer setbacks but it’s important to keep trying. While camping in the Mt. Hood National forest last August, I broke my right fibula near my ankle and had to have surgery to have a plate and screws implanted on my bone to secure the multiple fractures. The journey back to be able to dance again was long and difficult. I was unable to walk for 3 months. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be at the level of fitness before my accident. Many of my Pulse PDX friends were incredibly supportive during my recovery time, helping me, visiting me, bringing me food, and just providing comfort with kind notes of support. I am proud and happy to say that while I still need to work on strength and flexibility with my ankle, I am able to dance again at my happy place. I can’t thank my Pulse family enough for the love and support during my recovery.

With Liz and Pam for the Zumba half-time show at a Portland Trail Blazers game

What I’ve learned is that fitness is a multifaceted pursuit, one that is best served if you enjoy what you are doing. I learned that dance fitness is my happy place; it’s the one activity that doesn’t feel like exercise to me. Along the way I have added strength classes and repair classes that Pulse PDX now offers. I have learned about the specific nutrition my body needs. I now have a better knowledge of this body I inhabit and I want to keep it running well for as long as I can. I will be turning 50 this year and I can say unequivocally that I am in the best physical shape of my life. Yes, I have further to go, but I am proud of the person I have become and Pulse PDX is a huge integral part of my journey back to health. I am so grateful for all the instructors who take so much time to get certified, to come up with new routines, and who stay up on new trends in fitness to bring to their students. I am so grateful for the friends I have made at Pulse PDX. Pulse PDX from day one gave me joy, something I realized that I was greatly lacking. Dancing under the sparkling lights with people who are smiling, how could there be anything in that but joy? I look forward to many healthy years ahead of dancing with all you beautiful people.

-Caroline Rouwalk