With tensions in Middle East roiling, the government of Iran took a strong step this month to address a matter of deep geopolitical importance: It effectively banned Zumba. The government’s Sports for All Federation issued a statement forbidding “Zumba and any harmonious movement or body-shaking instruction” in public or private settings, accusing the craze of “contravening Islamic ideology.”
The sticky theological question for the country’s Shiite clerics was whether the rhythmic movements of Zumba, an aerobics fad that originated in Colombia, are best classified as dancing or exercise. Authorities have apparently decided that they are aimed at “pleasure seeking,” which makes them haram. They are also concerned about Zumba’s second-order effects on men, who can watch videos of classes online. Some videos have been blocked as pornography since the ban.
But as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz points out, the Iranian clerics are actually behind the curve in noticing Zumba’s problematic sexiness. In 2013, a rabbinical judge in the Israeli community of Betar Ilit banned Zumba because “in form and manner, the activity is totally at odds with both the ways of the Torah and the holiness of Israel, as are the songs associated to it.” (Women simply sought out Zumba classes in other communities.) Around the same time, one American rabbi warned that the “goyish provocative” music would lead to pole dancing, which would in turn lead to prostitution.
Zumba is not the only exercise fad singled out by religious authorities for suspicion. Yoga has been the focus of Christian mistrust for decades, for example, because of its origins in Eastern religious traditions and associations with New Age spirituality. “When Christians practice yoga,” the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, warned in 2010, “they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga.” Mark Driscoll, an evangelical pastor who then headed a megachurch in Seattle, called yoga “demonic” the following year.
Other Christians have embraced yoga’s moves while attempting to strip it of its religious associations, or layering their own on top of it. There’s Christ Centered Yoga, PraiseMoves (“the Christian ALTERNATIVE to Yoga!”), Yogod, and Holy Yoga, whose practitioners omit mentions of chakras and the customary chanting of “Om.” This, in turn, has prompted suspicion from traditional practitioners. “Can Yoga Be Christian?” an editorial reprinted in U.S. News & World Report asked Wednesday, which happened to be International Yoga Day.
Religious authorities have a variety of reasons for warning adherents from getting caught up in fitness crazes: too sexy, too New Age, too sexy, too vain, too sexy. But group exercise classes are more than just a way to shed pounds. They’re also places for collective ecstasy, an often-sweaty mixture of inward gazing and outward fervor. They are cousins, in other words, of religious services. That makes them competition.
Meanwhile, in Iran, Zumba instructors and fans are grappling with fallout from the new ban. Zumba remains wildly popular in major cities among all kinds of women, whose exercise opportunities had already been severely restricted by other bans. Instructors there previously used euphemisms like “exercise to music” or “body rhythm” to promote classes, before loosening up in recent years and using “Zumba” openly. One instructor in Tehran told the New York Times she will continue with her classes, but will simply change the name. “Zumba,” she said, “will not be stopped.” If she’s right, that’s something else it has in common with faith.