EAST CHICAGO — When a 90-year-old reader of your health-and-fitness articles invites you to a two-hour "Zumbathon," the answer is yes.

"Come play with us," Hammond nonagenarian Mary LeVan emailed me several weeks ago, asking me to join her at the class held monthly at a nightclub here.

I couldn't turn down the challenge because, well, I never turn down a fitness challenge. But I also couldn't say no to a woman who is more than five decades my senior but also more active than me.

"If you can do John Bobalik's class, you can do anything," LeVan told me when I arrived Tuesday night. She was referring to the Advanced Abs and Core class taught in Hammond by the Purdue University Northwest fitness guru that I barely survived three years ago.

Plus, I had never before done Zumba, an exercise program that is a cross between dance and cardio, but always wanted to try it.

"It's fun," Maria Barbee said of Zumba. She's the instructor who rents the space and teaches classes there. "You get your workout, and you're having fun at the same time, so it's awesome."

LeVan, a slight woman who looks a couple decades younger than her age, discovered Zumba about six years ago, when it was offered at the Hammond Civic Center. She said a friend had died not long before that, and she was in a funk.

"It came at a time when I really needed it," LeVan said. "You cannot be depressed with Zumba."

LeVan is a testament to the benefits of fitness, no matter your age. She walks five miles a day as part of the Well Walker's Club at Highland's Memorial Wicker Park, does the SilverSneakers exercise class at Purdue Northwest and ballroom dances at the Jean Shepherd Community Center, also in Hammond.

"My goal is 10,000 steps a day," she said, showing me the pedometer on her waist (it was at 9,300). "I'll have it at the end of this."

The marathon Zumba class, held at Excalibur Night Club, features instructors from around the Region who rotate teaching routines to their favorite songs, mostly Latin dance music with some hip-hop mixed in.

After the first song, I asked, "Is it over?" No, there were about 40 to go.

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A woman in front of me then advised me to take some Advil before I went to bed that night.

The instructor who stood out the most was Armani Perez, an 11-year-old East Chicago boy. His mom, Crystal Vasquez, started taking him to classes with her, and now he's hooked. The kid can dance. He is going to be popular with the ladies (if he's not already).

By the second hour, covered with sweat, I was checking the clock, not sure if I was coming or going. The flashing colored lights didn't help me not hallucinate.

But I stuck with it. As some of my fellow Zumbathoners dropped out or took breaks, I kept on dancing, nearly to the end. I gave up around the two-hour mark, while the class went for another half hour. I had signed up for two, not a minute more.

It was fun. While I felt a little out of place as only one of three males there, Zumba is an enjoyable way to get in shape. You sweat and listen to good music and don't really care how well you dance (I, of course, was "Saturday Night Fever"-era John Travolta).

"It keeps you in shape," said Hammond resident Janeth Vinueza, who Zumba'd next to me and was one of the few participants to make to to the end. "And it's good for your health."

The intense workout was exactly what my body needed after all the fried food and beer I consumed over the Fourth of July weekend.

"I actually do it before I go to work ... so it lifts me up before I have to deal with people for eight to 10 hours," said Evie Melchor, of East Chicago.

The women (and sprinkling of guys) who work out there are a tight knit group. They had cake to celebrate Barbee's birthday after Tuesday's class.

"Besides the exercise, there's the camaraderie. You build a family here," said Loretta Grindey, of East Chicago, who has lost 40 pounds doing Zumba. "You have your friends, and then you have your Zumba friends. I love these ladies. They push you. They're behind you."

"We're Zumba sisters," said Veronica Salinas, of Hammond. "We're Zumba freaks."

"I'm a Zumbaholic," added Isabel Delacruz, of Crown Point.

While I'm not there yet, I now see the appeal of Zumba. I'm definitely open to another Zumbathon. And if any sweet old ladies invite me to one, you know I won't be able to say no.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.