A block away from the Carrillo Recreation Center, we were already bouncing our heads to the lively beat of the Latin-based music emanating from the brick structure. We followed some women in sports attire into the brightly lit ballroom, where nearly 100 additional women (and a few men) wearing neon fitness clothing were stretching. Suddenly, a slender form with a huge smile on her face sprang onto the stage and began dancing wildly. It was dance instructor Josette Roozen-Tkacik, and she was teaching her popular Zumba class. Soon everyone in the room was following her lead, the entire floor moving to the beat.
Zumba is currently the number-one fitness trend in the United States, accordivng to the Huffington Post (U.K.), and it took less than 30 seconds to understand why — my friend and I were out of breath, giddy, and perspiring profusely after the hour-long class. Zumba is a combination dance and fitness movements — a swirl of samba, martial arts, belly dancing, and lunges, among other moves — and Roozen-Tkacik’s sessions are extremely popular. Throughout the class, her passion and energy shone as she danced enthusiastically in front of her students, encouraging them not only to push themselves but also to laugh and smile with her.
Born and raised in New York, Roozen-Tkacik began dancing at the age of 3; by 12, she was studying ballet with companies such as the Joffrey Ballet in New York and the Metropolitan Ballet of St. Louis. From 1985-1987, she attended the Juilliard School’s Dance Division in Manhattan and studied with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. For the past two decades, she has taught more than 500 dance classes (tap, modern, jazz, ballet, and dance technique) and attended more than 100 master classes.
Yet her first experience with Zumba was just three years ago in South Florida, when a friend dragged her to a class. “I laughed the whole time — and cried,” she said, because “I knew from the first time [I tried it] that I would teach.” In 2009, South Florida was an international hub for learning Zumba; Roozen-Tkacik studied with the best, including Zumba creator Alberto “Beto” Perez.
What makes Roozen-Tkacik’s Zumba success story more compelling is the fact that in 2011, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of joints, tissues, and organs, and for most, lifelong treatment and toxic medication are necessary to prevent joint destruction for a seemingly incurable disease. Roozen-Tkacik, who was in extreme pain and could barely walk without some assistance, was told to forget about dancing. However, she firmly decided to “take the path less traveled,” she said. She denied all medication and made extreme changes to her lifestyle and diet by going vegan and cutting out everything from sugar to alcohol. “Years later,” she said, “I have no symptoms and have returned blood tests all negative, leaving doctors stunned.”
Now every step she takes comes with “gratitude for being able to move,” she said, adding that “Zumba is a huge healing program.” Not only did Zumba help her get better physically, but it has also been a spiritual savior — every day she tries to “touch the spirits” of all of her pupils, she admitted. And so she does. “Zumba is often the best part of my day,” confessed her student Sonia Lucyga. “I think that is something Josette understands on a human level because for many of her students, she feels a lot more like a friend or mentor than a fitness teacher.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve had 20 years of technical [dance] training,” said Roozen-Tkacik. “[Zumba] is for everyone. People are able to let loose for an hour.” During the class, it is obvious by her exaggerated movements and big smile that she is acting without reservation and having a lot of fun doing so. When one of her students approached her after a class and jokingly said she danced like a “spazz,” Roozen-Tkacik replied with a grin and a huge, “Thank you!”