Illustration by Joseph Harmon

OKAY. Let's pretend a murderer stuck a gun to my head and said, "You have to either take a Jazzercise or a Zumba class." First of all, I'd think this person was a pretty terrible murderer. Secondly, I'd think, "Screw YOU, murderer! I'm gonna take BOTH!" Which is exactly what I did. (Full disclosure: There was never a murderer involved.)

Now, I've taken a number of aerobics-style classes in my time—but because of unsubstantiated prejudices, I steered clear of Jazzercise and Zumba. My inexperienced mind equated Jazzercise with spandex-wearing Jane Fondas dancing to Broadway show tunes with straw hats and canes. (Dibs on that idea, actually.) Similarly, with Zumba I assumed I'd have to wear a skirt covered with coins, and hop around to African music while feeling like the whitest cracker in the Nabisco saltine factory.

Unbelievably? Both assumptions were WRONG. (I know, right?)

While there are plenty of these classes scattered around the city, for my experiment I chose the Southeast quadrant, and wound up at Sellwood's Casa del Padre Church for my first-ever attempt at Jazzercise. First takeaway: The place was jam-packed with happy, friendly, youngish folk who unfortunately dressed nothing like '80s-era Olivia Newton-John. I barely had time to finish my form, relieving them of any responsibility if I dropped dead of a heart attack, when the class leapt into action.

Second takeaway: Umm... where were the Broadway show tunes? Their workout music consisted of all my fave current dance jams, and after some rhythmic stretching, I was having a blast with a full-body cardio routine that was more akin to a night at the club than... you know... (ugh) exercising. The cardio portion was followed by some strength training (small weights and stretchy tubes), and by the time I finally looked up at the clock? BAM, an hour had flown by without much thought (or low-grade moaning, which I usually do in such situations).

Also surprising: I didn't have a heart attack, and yet the class still seemed challenging to the regulars. Instructor Meegan Rust explained it this way: "Jazzercise is designed to be a workout for everyone—regardless of your age or fitness level. It's dance-based cardio, combined with Pilates, yoga, strength training, and stretching—all to popular hits. So yeah... no show tunes." (Note: She didn't explicitly say you can't attend class with a straw hat and cane.)

Next came Zumba class, which I attended at Dance with Joy Studios. True to Zumba's description on Wikipedia, the workout "incorporates hiphop, soca, samba, salsa [not the dip], merengue [not the lemon pie topping], mambo, and martial arts." So as you can see, there are fewer lunges, curls, and knee lifts, and more step-ball-changes, grapevines, and cha-cha-chas. (But no coin-covered skirts.) For me, Zumba was challenging, because instead of a sense of rhythm, I was born with two stacks of pancakes attached to the end of my legs. But it was still fun, the music varied between top-40 dance and world beat, and I learned some tango moves in spite of myself.

Instructor Andy Long reminded me that nailing the moves isn't the important part. "We may keep a very similar routine for three weeks or so," Long said, "in case you'd like to learn it. But we think it's more important to have fun than to do the steps precisely." GOOD, because as stated before, I have pancake stacks for feet.

So which is right for you: Jazzercise or Zumba? It's important to note that individual classes will vary somewhat, but from my limited experience, if you like a good, core-building workout that burns fat AND is super fun, go with Jazzercise. If working up a decent sweat, learning how to do a tango leg sweep, and not being too concerned about results is your thing, give Zumba its due. In either case, both will successfully break up your boring workout routine, and are significantly better than having a gun pointed at your head. (Now that's a recommendation!)


To find classes near you, go to jazzercise.com and zumba.com.