Don’t Just Say It: Creating a Truly Inclusive Group Fitness Experience

This extra special guest post is from Courtney Marshall, the founder of Wrong Is Not My Name: Black Feminist Fitnessa Zumba group exercise instructor at the Greater Manchester YMCA and the YMCA of Strafford County in New Hampshire, and a Body Positive Fitness Alliance professional. I was honored to meet her in person last year, and cannot say enough about her energy, passion, and enthusiasm for health and service to others. And so, with no further ado, here are a few of Courtney’s thoughts regarding how she makes her Zumba classes welcoming for all people: 

body positiveI’ve been taking Zumba classes for almost 4 years, and I’ve been teaching them for about 6 months.  Zumba is my favorite workout because it mixes improvisation and precision. As a fat-positive instructor and Body Positive Fitness Alliance professional, it’s my duty (and pleasure) to actively create an environment that lets everyone know that bigger bodies are welcome and cherished here.  Here’s how I do it.

Every class starts the same way. I ask if anyone in the room is new to Zumba and cheer if they are. I tell them what Zumba is and that it’s my goal to make class the most fun hour of their day. Then I go over the rules:

  1. Drink your water or whatever you brought in that bottle of yours!
  2. Use the body you brought with you. This is your workout, so make it as intense as you like. You don’t want to jump? Fine with me! Feel like sitting?  There’s a bench right over there!
  3. Smile and encourage someone else in the class. Make a Zumba friend!

I usually include a few more lines:

“Mistakes are okay. We ain’t landing planes.”

“These moves are suggestions. Move in a way that makes you feel happy.”

“Have fun, and if you get some fitness, well okay.”

Then the music starts (currently it’s Beyoncé), and we’re off!!

I suppose this opening monologue can be condensed into two pieces of advice: take care of yourself and take care of one another. Having participants feel connected to one another and invested in one another’s happiness and success is a hallmark of my class. Zumba isn’t about me or the music. It’s all about the community we create together. In my Zumba class, we’re all about positive energy and positive words.

Making people feel welcome influences other parts of my class design. Because participants follow what I do, I work on effective cueing and displaying variations and modifications for the movements. In every song, I tell the participants to move in a way that makes them feel connected to their bodies. With one soca song, I show them how doing the moves at half the speed still looks classy (especially when you do it with a smile on your face!). When we’re moving across the floor, we can take big steps or little steps.  There’s no wrong way to turn or to body roll! In fact, when we put our expectations to the side and center bodily comfort and awareness in class, we reap so many benefits! I also wear shirts with messages like “#bodypositive” and “All bodies are summer bodies.”

Every class features a song that requires us to face one another. Some days we’re in a circle; other days we’re in lines facing one another. Doing this means that everyone gets to be at the front of the class. When we’re face to face, we have to look at one another and this encourages extra smiles and shimmies! I make sure to have a playlist that represents many different parts of the world and sometimes tell them what country particular songs come from.

At the end of class, I thank them for spending part of their day dancing; encourage them to try classes with other instructors; and implore them to use their muscles for good, not evil. I remind them that I happily take song requests and encourage them to bring a friend who might be curious about Zumba but unsure about whether they can keep up. That person can stay for a few songs or just hang out with us and be cute.

I do all this because I want to make a Zumba class that doesn’t just say it’s inclusive. I want to always be intentional about my commitment to making people feel cared for, encouraged, and welcomed. This way we can all dance and have a good time together!



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