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Outdoor Zumba Classes Bring Joy To Some New Yorkers During The Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In these challenging times, Americans are turning to little things to help them stay sane and find joy. As Sally Herships reports, for one group of bundled-up New Yorkers, happiness comes in the form of Zumba class outside.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: On a Saturday at lunchtime, Michael Aredes leans his bike against a park bench. He's in a white helmet, sweating from his ride and holding an iced coffee in a plastic cup. About 10 women are lined up on the sidewalk, socially distanced, wearing masks and leggings but also ski hats and vests.

MICHAEL AREDES: Good morning, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Good morning.

AREDES: Happy Saturday.

HERSHIPS: Aredes leans over and sets up two miniature speakers on the pavement. He is here to teach Zumba pandemic-style - safely outdoors.

AREDES: Thank you guys for being here again. I'm really, really grateful. Any injuries you have - ankles, knees, back, shoulder - please make any modifications to make it work for you. And the last thing and the most important thing is to always what?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Have fun.

AREDES: Let's get the show on the road, guys.

HERSHIPS: Walk by one of Aredes' classes in a Brooklyn park, and it's practically impossible not to notice him. He is a big dude - easily six feet tall with an even bigger spirit. His hair is in a scrunchie, and he's clapping his hands over his head and lunging. It feels like you're just a few feet away from cheerleading practice or a Broadway rehearsal.

AREDES: Hey. Hey.

HERSHIPS: And Aredes is the choreographer. It's cold enough to make your glasses fog up behind your mask, so students like Gwen Knowles are zipped into winter coats.

Tell me what you're wearing because it is quite nippy.

GWEN KNOWLES: I have extra-warm special socks on. I have thermal underwear and a vest and a coat and gloves. And before, I was wearing mittens and a hat.

HERSHIPS: The pandemic has been hard for Knowles. She lost her mom, but she's grateful to be alive and healthy and able to pay her bills. And like a lot of people here today, she craves safe interaction with other humans, so she comes out despite the cold. A few feet down the sidewalk, Felice Tebbe says she comes to Aredes' class four days a week.

FELICE TEBBE: Well, every time I come, I'm uplifted, and I'm like, I can do this. The quarantine, you know, the lockdown - it's a game-changer. It changes my whole demeanor.

HERSHIPS: Before the pandemic, Aredes bartended at the kind of New York City restaurants that have a lot of dollar signs next to their names in guidebooks. He also taught Zumba a couple of days a week at the YMCA, but his dream was to work in fine dining, and the pandemic has put that on hold. So like some of his students, Aredes sometimes struggles, too.

AREDES: I think the hardest thing is - to realize has been, like, I can't always keep myself running the way I thought I needed to be. I needed to take a moment to slow down and enjoy the time I have, just enjoy my life a little bit more.

(Singing) What a tale my thoughts would tell.

HERSHIPS: An old man stops to stare from behind his mask. Kids, to tell their parents, tug at their hands. Aredes leaves a stack of business cards out on a bench. He's used to the attention joy brings these days. A few minutes later, 36-year-old Anna Levy stops to watch.

ANNA LEVY: Fun feels like a novelty, you know? And I'm just like, yeah, here it is. We don't need that much - just this awesome human standing in front, calling and dancing.

AREDES: (Vocalizing).

I think that all of - everyone is looking for something to give themself that moment of pause, that moment of happiness, something joyous to do. And this, for me, is something that makes me super-super-happy.

Thank you guys very much. The schedule for next week's up. And Saturday - next Saturday's a 90-minute class for my birthday, so we're going to have some fun. Thank you guys.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.