Secret to health is ‘shedding inhibitions’, says Zumba teacher revolutionising fitness

A Zumba instructor fears that society’s approach to exercise is so outdated, it may be deterring people from taking part.

Despina Koniordou, currently teaching online during lockdown, explained that putting pressure on individuals by excessively communicating guidelines on what we should be doing is a huge risk for those who lean towards low self-esteem or anxiety.

She believes that with a revamped public health message, people would approach exercise in a different way and embrace it as a small activity to add to their day, rather than the way it is framed as the only outlet to avoid obesity or serious health conditions.

Speaking to Uspire, she said: “I do worry about the impact of ordering people to exercise may have on some.

“With a professional background in mental health – and having had my own mental health and eating disorder issues – I am very aware of the ‘trap’ of overdoing it.

“We are conditioned to look at exercise as a means to gain something (or lose in my case).

“Though I really think lockdown has reframed this concept of physical health and wellness, and I sincerely hope it will kick that fad’s butt out of the limelight.

“People are looking after their bodies more, or at least they try to approach exercise as a positive step of looking after themselves.”

Speaking about her approach to Zumba, Despina says her aim is to help participants explore their creative movement.

By focusing the sessions on personal growth and ability, she believes that people will remain invested in their wellbeing.

Despina explained: “With the exception of a couple of seasoned dancers, every single person I’ve ever instructed has told me they are not good at this, or they have two left feet, or they are uncoordinated, and every one of them has been wrong.

“The way I see it, a Zumba class is a bit like a clowning workshop. The purpose is to learn what your body does and how to get it to do something else, shedding your views on what movement is acceptable, possible or logical.

“I try to encourage physical comedy because bodies are weird and moving them in new ways is the objective.”

She continued: “Being coordinated or confident is the end goal, but already being these things would make Zumba a repetitive formal ‘exercise’, which I reject on the grounds that I don’t like to do boring things myself.

“Why teach boring, when we can collectively learn to goof around, lose inhibitions and grow in confidence?!

“The most important thing Zumba has taught me is not to take myself seriously. Whatever is going on in my head, moving and laughing is going to be good for me, so I aim for that, and if I get stronger in the process, it’s an added bonus.

“I’ve tried to marry aspects of mindfulness, moving therapy, and emotional release, and reaffirming thinking together with primal physical comedy to bring a sense of wellbeing, but also to make this fun. If it’s not fun, there’s no point to it, the way I see it.

“Focusing on positive thinking and building on positive self-talk, exercise should be an act of self-care. Anything that encourages you to beat yourself up is a big no-no (and a huge trigger for me).

“It makes me happy that the majority of my students have not been particularly keen on generic exercise before, yet they come back to my classes, week in week out.”

Revealing what still motivates her three years on, Despina says her main incentive is to guide the energy in a class, as people shed their worries in front of her.

She added: “I do miss the social aspect of hosting a class, and some things are easier to explain face-to-face than online, but it’s been a fun challenge to learn how to instruct in a different way.

“Seeing smiley people clown around is still the biggest positive reward for me. Honestly, my classes are the highlight of my week.”

Despina was first drawn to Zumba when out of work and looking for an activity to keep her engaged both physically and mentally.

She had been a ballet dancer throughout childhood, though during her angsty teenage years rejected its classical style and was drawn to the diverse rhythms that Zumba offered instead.

Despina said: “After a few years of taking classes, my sister bought me a sports top ‘to wear when you become an instructor’ as a Christmas present.

“I signed up to become one on a whim, and honestly it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

“Being an instructor is wonderful as it combines connecting with people, bringing them joy, and having creative freedom within a physical medium.

“Things that you love doing make you happier and you’re much more likely to stick to them, I try to approach Zumba in this light, hoping to inspire others to view exercise in this way.

“Being within your body is a great way to exist, so that’s what we celebrate at each class.”

Despina is offering her lessons for free during lockdown, with a suggested small donation so that she can raise money for charity.

She has so far donated to the Magic Breakfast, a project that organises breakfast at school for children from homes in extreme poverty. Since school closures, they have been doing brunch takeaways, providing kids and their families with much-needed meals.

For April, donations went to the NHS Charities Together, due to the current crisis of poor PPE (personal protective equipment) for health care and key workers that is still critical.

In May, she plans to donate to the PSP Association – the only UK charity to fund research into finding a cure for brain disease Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.

And should virtual classes continue into summer, Despina’s chosen charity for June is the Bromley Women’s Refuge while July donations will go to Arthritis Action.