Courtney Marshall's Sunday Zumba class is standing-room only. Once a week, a group of all ages laugh, cheer, and dance together.
This group brings style and goofy t-shirts to their workouts. They call it "Sunday Funday".
"You saw me get up and do a dance. I would never do that in any class that I take I would never do that," said Donna Garofono, a regular participant.
"I was a lot heavier when I started this class. And I stood in the very back, the last row. I’ve moved myself up a little bit. She just makes me feel really comfortable," Garofono said.
Susie Gordon is in her sixties and wore a silver fanny pack with tropical print leggings. She'd come to class that Sunday with her granddaughter.
"I’ve been doing it since January, but I’m a little bit unique because I have Parkinson’s so I cannot.. physically, some days, my feet don’t come off the floor," said Gordon.
"The way they shimmy... I can’t do that. My core is very rigid. So I was so nervous about coming, but Courtney has been so wonderful about helping. When I can’t follow the steps she tells me: just move. Just do whatever you want. That has just made a big difference."
Zumba regulars Tom and Kathy Sklutas are both in their seventies.
"Every Sunday. Funday Sunday," Tom said. "Matter of fact, when we don’t have it, I miss it a lot."
"It's the best day. It's one of those safe places where you can let you hair down and be yourself. The self nobody knows," Kathy said with a laugh. She'd come to class wearing a shirt that said "Sunday Funday" in patchwork letters.
Kathy thinks about the class in a way exercises classes are usually not described.
"I call it church. This is the way church is supposed to be."
Just what is going in this Zumba class? How did it happen that so much joy and freedom is taking place at the YMCA in Rochester?
It starts with the leader of the class, Courtney Marshall.
Courtney did not set out to become a Zumba instructor. In college, she had another plan.
"I said, I want to be an English professor. I want to be the chair of an English department. I want to run the university. It's going to be so great. I'm going to have this totally academic life. That’s what I was gonna do."
She left her hometown of Newark, New Jersey for New Hampshire. After a year at Dartmouth, she dropped out to attend Essex County Community College in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Eventually, she earned her degree in English and Women's Studies at Rutgers and a PhD in English from UCLA.
"I wrote my dissertation on representations of black female criminals in black women’s literature," she said.
Courtney wrote about what counts as legal or illegal for different people. for instance, within the institution of slavery –
"Things like dancing, or pretending to be sick, or running away... these acts were illegal. But they felt like freedom."
And by her mid-thirties, Courtney was working as an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and preparing to turn her dissertation into a book. She was on track.
But even the best-laid plans can be disrupted.
"I'd gone to a Beyoncé concert," she said. "This was Revel, about six years ago in Atlantic City. And I accidentally wound up in the front row."
"I wanted to be Beyoncé at the Beyoncé concert. I was moved by her endurance – her and the dancers," Courtney said. "And I said jokingly on Facebook, I’m going back to the gym, like, tomorrow."
She made good on that statement.
"So, I was in a Zumba class, and I was always in the back of the class because I was following one particular teacher around, and so I said, well I know the moves, I'll hang out in the back."
But there in the back row, she starting hearing a lot of negative talk around her: critical comments from women about their own bodies.
"And they would say things like, oh, I can’t dance, I'm too fat, I'm here to work this off. It was just really harsh," she said.
"I was there to have fun, because I wanted to dance and sing and goof off. But it was really shocking to me. And it was sad because they were smaller than I was. Like, I didn’t think that skinny people had problems like this! It was mind-blowing to me."
When Courtney started, she says she was focused more on losing weight. She wanted to be able to move and perform like Beyoncé did onstage and at first, she felt like losing weight was the way to get there.
"I don’t talk about my own weight loss much, but I lost 250 pounds over those first few years. What I saw was that over time, my body was still big but I didn’t feel bad about it once I started moving."
"So I said maybe there’s something wrong about the way I’m thinking about what it means to be fat. And so I started finding role models and for me, it was big animals. So I started thinking about elephants, and whales and walruses, and just how cute they were, and how they were totally awesome! And the big redwood trees are huge! But we don’t think that they’re worse than little roses. We don’t do that."
"And that got me thinking about people. And that being fat was not a source of shame. Or it was not a negative. It was not an insult."
Fat, Courtney says, is just a descriptor. It describes bodies, including her own.
"I just wound up in this community of fat athletes. I started doing obstacle course races, and I did a Tough Mudder, and I did lots of Spartan Races, and I did a triathlon, and I did all of them being fat."
"And it was awesome."
Meanwhile, Courtney had been working as an assistant professor at UNH while working on her book, the one based on her dissertation, and teaching.
"I had been teaching this poem, this June Jordan poem, called 'Poem About My Rights.' The speaker is talking about not being able to go for a walk. And not being able to kind of live in her body because she is the wrong skin color or the wrong gender, so all these things are wrong with her. It's a brilliant, beautiful poem.
"And at the end, she says: I am not wrong. I am not in the wrong body."
"And so what happened was I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this poem. I had always been using it in my classes to think about women's bodies and race but I hadn’t thought about the movement. I hadn't thought about the walking at the beginning of the poem."
"And by then, I was already in the gym and exercising. And I decided to quit my job. That night, that moment, and think about how I might use this black feminist teaching and theories, and this poem in particular, to do work about movement."
It was a big change. But Courtney had decided: she would become a fitness instructor.
"I told my husband a couple days later, and he was like, what? How we gonna eat, what are we gonna do? And I was like, we’re gonna be fine."
It’s been a few years after that night, and now Courtney has a following. Her longest running class is that Sunday morning Zumba group at the Rochester YMCA. She regularly gets about 25 participants a week.
"Initially, I was working at the Y, so I was making some money. Nobody makes it big at the Y, but I made enough to live, and that was fine."
Courtney got her certifications, led Zumba and AquaZumba, taught classes to seniors and to kids, and became a personal trainer. She started a reading group at the local prison and found she liked reading with incarcerated people more than she liked writing about them.
"I worked as a volunteer exercise instructor. I contacted housing authority because I grew up in the projects, so I said okay, if people aren't in the gym, where are they? And they were in Housing Authority, low-income housing. So I went there and I offered classes to seniors. I said, why should they drive? If people can't drive, I have to get to them."
"And I said I wanted to go broke doing this work."
When asked if she'd wanted to say in New Hampshire, Courtney responded with an emphatic no. This was actually the second time she thought she would leave for good -- the first was as a teenager, when she left Dartmouth after her freshman year of college.
"I said, y'all can take this state, I will wrap it up and give it back to you."
"When I left UNH I said I'm gonna leave New Hampshire again. Because, to do the work I want to do, I need to be around other people of color. I need to be in a black community. How is it possible to do this in New Hampshire? Like, what?!"
But then, she got a letter offering her a position as an English teacher at Philips Exeter Academy. She’d also be able to keep teaching fitness as part of her job. She decided to take it.
"I think I’m just destined to be in New Hampshire. It's the place where this will take root. And that’s okay," she said.
But her clients, the people who take her fitness classes, are mostly white people. There might be one or two people of color taking her classes from time to time, but for the most part, she's the only black woman in the room.
"But I tell them all the time: you benefit from this way of thinking," she said. "I encourage them. Pay attention to black women. Read a text, read a poem."
"At the end of the day, I'm still this fat black woman teaching exercise in New Hampshire."
"Sometimes people make stereotypes when they think they're complimenting me when they compliment my dance ability, when they say it must be in my blood that I'm a good dancer," Courtney said. "Or they ask me where I'm from, or they tell me about that one time they went to some island and they learned a dance... that can be tricky."
But sometimes, it cuts deeper than that.
"People talk at the gym. I remember I was in a hip-hop class right after Trayvon Martin was shot," Courtney said.
"I remember being in that class, and I remember feeling like I couldn't breathe."
"I left. I had to go to bathroom. I remember texting friends. I said, I can't do it... I feel so sad as a black person, but here we are in this class listening to black singers and somehow borrowing and imbibing and hip-hop culture, but here we have this kid..."
"I felt like there was nobody I could talk to in that moment and so I left," said Courtney.
It’s not easy. But when Courtney talks about her choices or the way she deals with something hard, she always refers back to her family and to the women she studies: the black women who have been resisting and living and doing the work that needs to be done. It is her foundation.
"This is where it goes back to really engaging with what black feminists had been doing. Making a way out of no way, as my grandma would say. But living in abundance instead of scarcity. It changed everything."
"I’ve made black women the center of my world. I learn from brilliant women. I have models for it and I've always had models for it."