A high-intensity exercise fitness program. That is the literal definition of Zumba — one of the most popular fitness programs in the world. That it would become known as a high energy gym class for women mostly is interesting to note, especially when other popular fitness programs like the Crossfit, P90X and HIIT don’t tip in favour of any one gender.
Even the founder of Zumba Fitness LLC — the business entity behind the namesake fitness program is a man. Yet Zumba is seen worldwide as something largely for women, and I wonder if this perception is just a clever marketing ploy or an organic reflection of how strict our definition of masculinity is.
Regardless of how it happened, Zumba as a fitness program does not invite boys. So, my story this month is about Mohsin Syed, a male Zumba instructor from Mumbai. I was thrilled to learn about Mohsin’s journey. He went from working in finance for an international bank to becoming one of India’s leading Zumba instructors, and both these professions are like chalk and cheese.
A skinny boy
Growing up, Mohsin was scrawny and nothing like the macho vision of masculinity advertised in India. He went to an all-boys school and his skinny frame made him a regular target of bullying. I can visualise young boys doing that but it’s incredulous to hear that even adults had their quiet ways of stereotyping. Mohsin mentions that when it came to cultural events at schools, even the instructors wanted him to play only the female character because of his skinny frame. This constant bullying did not tire Mohsin out though, and he continued to participate in cultural activities.
Being frail can be a challenging situation for a young boy. We have come a long way in recognizing that body shaming young girls for not being slim is repulsive. Shaming boys for being skinny and not bulky is the male equivalent of this problem.
I, personally, relate to this kind of bullying, being frail myself growing up. Unlike Mohsin, I caved under the pressure and stopped participating in activities where I could be body shamed. But Mohsin persevered, and he had little idea that it would pay off later in terms of a fulfilling career as a Zumba instructor.
From finance to fitness
After college, Mohsin got a start to his career with a job in banking. He had grown up in a loving middle-class family in Mumbai and was acutely aware of his modest family inheritance. Becoming an independent person was paramount and a career in a high-paying industry like banking was the way out. He did really well too, by landing himself not just any banking job but a job in one of the leading international banks. Within three years, his work had taken him to 11 different countries. Not a small feat for a middle-class boy.
The growing up experience and the bullying at school had left its scars for Mohsin and hence, the gym had become a sacred space from him as an adult. Soon, he was no longer the frail, skinny guy from his childhood. He had hustled his way out and transformed to not just a towering figure but also a more confident man.
After getting some financial stability, Mohsin’s banking job started gnawing at him. At the same time, his passion for fitness was growing endlessly. So he quit one day without much of a plan. He was clueless as to what to do next, knowing only it had to be something in the fitness industry.
Becoming a fitness instructor
The discovery of Zumba for Mohsin can only be described as serendipitous. One day, while on a stroll in the neighborhood, he heard some upbeat music playing. Curious, he entered the building to find out more, and that’s when he walked into the world of Zumba.
Zumba was fascinating for Mohsin. He started out nervously but gained confidence quickly, thanks to his participation in cultural activities back in school. Encouraged by his instructor, he decided to pursue it seriously and went ahead to earn his certification to become an instructor.
All this was not without struggles and impediments. His shocking career move angered his mother who did not speak to him for several months. Relatives would keep calling him to express their disappointment in his chosen career. “We would understand if it was your sisters doing this, but how can you do it?” Even the religious leader of his local mosque summoned him and tried to dissuade him.
He faced many challenges as an instructor too. Less than 5% of Zumba instructors worldwide are men according to Mohsin and most participants at Zumba studios are women. Convincing students to take his class was challenging as women felt more comfortable training with women instructors.
Mohsin, however, has not given up and continues to march forward. His work ethic has landed him a chance to train under Suchita Pal — the leading Zumba figure in India and today, he has become one of the most sought after Zumba instructors.
Talking to Mohsin was an eye-opening experience for me about how gendered the world of Zumba is. While it’s a lot better today than since he started, he believes there is a lot of work ahead, even amongst young people to get rid of this perception. Mohsin’s story gives me hope and I hope it encourages young boys to see Zumba as a fitness class for them as well.