Sunny, syncopated Latin rhythms fill the downstairs at Kemp Mill Synagogue. In a building known for traditional nusach — the musical style or practice of chanting Hebrew prayers — beats and lyrics of salsa, bachata and reggaeton may sound different in this decidedly Jewish space.
On Tuesday evenings, the social hall heats up for a cardio-heavy workout that feels like a Latin dance party, with women tapping their toes, shuffling, skipping, jumping, swaying hips and shimmying shoulders to mostly Latin pop from the likes of Daddy Yankee, Selena, Shakira and Bad Bunny, with an occasional Israeli pop tune thrown in.
The weekly Zumba class at Kemp Mill Synagogue provides a women-only space for those who by preference or Jewish law do not dance for and with men. While Zumba attracts a high percentage of female instructors and participants to classes at local gyms, community centers, JCCs and YMCAs, these classes, whether for the general public or for gym or club members only, are open to all genders.
Orthodox women may not feel comfortable in that setting, particularly if they observe the Jewish laws of modesty. Seven years ago, a trio of dance-loving friends from the Kemp Mill neighborhood in Silver Spring — Rachel Falk, Mandi Lowenstein and Shani Malka — formed the women’s Zumba class following the success of a women’s Rosh Chodesh event that featured a brief but well-loved dance component led by Lowenstein and Falk.
“Mandi and I both love to dance,” explained Falk, “and whenever we’re at bar mitzvahs or any kind of celebration, we always dance together. And Shani and I would sometimes in the summer take [dance] classes together” at local studios.
The participants loved it so much they clamored for more — more Latin dance, more connectivity that comes from dancing together, more exercise opportunities and, most important, more healthy fun. Falk and Lowenstein invited Malka to join them in becoming certified Zumba instructors. They took an eight-hour course on the ins and outs of Zumba choreography, Latin rhythms and practiced dance moves until their muscles ached.
The synagogue agreed to provide the social hall for the women’s-only activity and avoid scheduling conflicting activities on Tuesday evenings. Falk sees it as a win-win for the synagogue and community, noting that it serves the immediate synagogue community, promoting camaraderie and good health, while bringing together women from a variety of synagogues in Kemp Mill and beyond. And a portion of the $10 class fee adds a modest amount to the synagogue’s coffers.
Until 2020, when COVID-19 forced the class to go online, the room would fill with about two dozen Orthodox women Zumbatistas reveling in the high-energy mix of moves. Recently, class sizes are smaller, about 10 to 12, but no less enthusiastic or sweaty, according to Lowenstein.
“There are a lot of women, including myself, who might not feel as comfortable if men were in class,” said Malka. “We definitely have women who come to our classes who would not dance if men were in the room.”
She added, “Also, also a lot of [Orthodox] women at the gym will wear skirts and be more modestly dressed, but here they can just wear regular workout gear.”
The three Zumba instructors make other adjustments so their classes are appropriate for their audience. They carefully choose the playlist to ensure that there are no songs with offensive or overtly explicit lyrics. They’ll go so far as to edit out a word or two. They also choreograph Zumba dances for Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and other Jewish holidays.
And, Malka added, “There are definitely some dance moves in our class that [some women] probably wouldn’t feel comfortable doing if men were present.” Although in the women’s classes, they can more freely shake hips and shoulders, not everyone does.
Likewise, some women still choose to wear a skirt over their leggings or cover their hair with a cap or scarf.
Zumba has ebbed and flowed in popularity since its founding in 2001 by Colombian aerobics dance instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez. During its early wave of international popularity, a few haredi Orthodox rabbis in Israel, New York and other locales objected to Zumba’s sensuous moves and secular lyrics, but no issues have arisen at Kemp Mill. In fact, Falk noted, “Our regulars love it. They say it puts a smile on their face when they come. So many say they love it and that it’s the highlight of their week.”
“It’s nice that the shul offers various programs for the community,” Lowenstein said one of her regulars told her. “Some nights they have learning … nourishment for the soul. And then there’s exercise — Zumba — for your physical health. We need these different options for being a well-rounded person.” ■
The women’s Zumba class meets Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Kemp Mill Synagogue, 11910 Kemp Mill Road., Silver Spring. There is a charge. Contact: [email protected]
Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.