Meet the women dancing their way through the pandemic

How outdoor Zumba classes created belonging and hope

Four women at the park
Four women meeting at the park to do Zumba, Photo courtesy of Terry Hickey 

A heavy snowfall is usually a good motivator to not go outside, but five women who have been meeting up regularly for Zumba, a fitness regime based on Latin-inspired dance moves, decided that one in February wasn’t going to stop them. 

They dug out 15 centimetres of snow and danced their way in.

The day the dancers shovelled 15 centimetres of snow for their dance floor. PHOTO COURTESY OF TERRY HICKEY

“COVID has driven us to do things that are maybe outside our comfort zone,” said Margot Almond, a member of the Zumba group in Mississauga, Ont. “It’s driven us to exercise in the rain, in windchill that I never thought possible.”

Something special is happening at these Zumba classes — something more than exercise.

The Zumba group founded by instructor Terry Hickey, 63, evolved into a close-knit community during the pandemic. It’s brought its members joy and hope. The group, which started dancing last summer outdoors together, powered through the winter and is still going strong.

We’re not talking about one random winter fitness challenge or a TikTok video. The group danced for 25 days in January and 19 days in February. They call their outdoor dance space Cuba North.

Hickey, a physician assistant, earned her Zumba instructing licence just before the pandemic. Although COVID-19 restrictions have made in-person fitness classes almost impossible, she was determined to do something good. 

“I can see the smiling faces out there when we’re dancing,” Hickey said. “It’s really been all of us helping each other to get through this.”

Watch Hickey and friends dance through four seasons:

Last summer, as COVID-19 restrictions eased up in Ontario, she posted in a community Facebook group asking if anyone wanted to do Zumba outside in keeping with the rules. She expected people to show interest but wasn’t sure who would actually come out. But they did. After the group’s first get-together, Hickey ended up scheduling four sessions a week.

“Terry motivates me to get out there,” said Elena Hernaci, one of the fellow dance floor shovellers in the group. “She’s just so much fun. So much positive energy.”

Many of the people walking join in for a song or two. Teenagers, grandmothers and even toddlers have gotten in on some hip action. Hickey says everyone smiles when they see the dancers.

  • four women posing for a picture in February of 2021

Photos courtesy of Terry Hickey

As someone who is high risk to COVID-19, Hernaci says it’s important to know they are following the Ontario Public Health guidelines on restrictions and gatherings. They dance outside with masks and are safely distanced. The group will remain as an exclusive private group only for the neighbours, which they all call friends now.

Almond remembers a time last summer when they were dancing to Dahil sa’yo by Inigo Pascual when a Filipino family of five came right over when they heard it. The group learned it was a Filipino song.

“They said it made them think of back home,” said Almond. “They were happy to see other people enjoying the music who were clearly not Filipino.”

More than exercise

Almond has noticed a difference between the Zumba group and the indoor fitness group classes she used to go to. That there’s a sense of belonging and connectedness that comes from exercising with people in your community, she said.

“I’ve been to indoor fitness classes before, and I can’t say that I have that same relationship with the people there,” Almond said. “This was more than shared Zumba.”

Two people posing for connection, June 2020. PHOTO COURTESY TERRY HICKEY

Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s school of public health, says community is about engaging in a shared identity or interest such as Zumba.

“The thing that makes it feel like a community is a sense of reciprocity that we are helping one another in some way,” said Mulligan, an expert on community health and wellbeing.

Mulligan referred to the findings of the Be Well Survey, a 2017 poll conducted in Ontario that found that having a sense of belonging and participating in organized activities is a key determinant of health. She has also conducted research that found people who gave back or helped somebody showed the greatest improvement in their health and wellbeing.

Hickey said the group has helped her so much that she cries sometime. She is touched by all the notes and gratitude people have expressed for her efforts.

Photos courtesy Terry Hickey

“We’ve bonded through dance in such a beautiful way. It’s really about how we have all helped each other through this,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience of giving back to one another.”

The group’s theme song is Better When I’m Dancing by Meghan Trainor. They play it every time they get together. 

“You just feel better when we’re dancing because we’re feeding off each other,” Almond said.

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Posted: Apr 6 2021 8:42 pm
Filed under: News