Students' pleas convince city to keep Zumba class

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 9:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 9:29 p.m.

Last Thursday, Cristiane Machado was standing on the stage of the Thelma Boltin Community Center, preparing to tell her students the bad news: Her contract with the city had been canceled. The Zumba class she had taught could no longer exist as it had before.

Tuesday evening, Machado stood on the same stage, hands on hips. About 80 students waited for what she had to say.

The classes will continue, she told them. Same time, same place.

The students immediately began assembling into rows for their Zumba class, but first paused to applaud the good news. More importantly, they were ready to dance.

Last week, about 60 Zumba students followed Machado from the Boltin Center to Thursday's City Commission meeting to protest the loss of the class. After hearing the students explain what the class meant to them, city commissioners voted unanimously to continue the class under Gainesville's Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs.

Three years ago, Gainesville began offering the Zumba class to city employees as a part of the city's wellness program. It was part of a plan to reduce Gainesville's insurance costs.

Because only 20 to 25 city employees attended the class, Machado offered to open it up to the public at no extra cost. The city's wellness coordinators agreed, and the class has been building popularity ever since.

Recently, however, the wellness coordinators noticed that the makeup of the class had changed significantly. More than half of the students were not city employees. Not only that, they were bringing kids.

"The wellness program administrator indicated that they really felt like the kids were perhaps taking away from the overall effectiveness for employees," City Manager Russ Blackburn said. "Ultimately ... they decided it would be better off to approach Zumba in a different way."

Shortly thereafter, the wellness coordinators terminated Machado's contract. Still, Machado said she had no intention of ending the class. LastThursday, she announced to her students she would be attending the City Commission meeting instead of holding class that day.

"I told them, 'I apologize for canceling with you, but I feel like I have to do that,' " Machado said. "So they all decided on their own to join me."

About 60 students followed her to City Hall. During public comment at the City Commission meeting, the students seized the floor, each explaining what the class meant to him or her.

Bobby Barnes-Gibbs, one of Machado's students, used her time to explain to the commissioners that she had suffered a stroke five years ago.

"I couldn't walk. My hands were up here," she said, pressing her hands to her chest. "And my mouth was twisted. As I began to come to Zumba, you can see as I stand here that I can move my hands, and I can move my legs."

Moved by the passion of the students, City Commissioner Todd Chase offered to donate the raise he received last year to help fund the class -- about $1,500.

"Listening to the people talking about the importance of the Zumba classes to them and their lives," he said. "I guess what I was struck by was what Zumba could be."

The class will continue at the Boltin Center with a sliding scale fee of $1 to $5. A supervised space for children will be offered.

For Machado, the decision to keep the class is a victory for the city.

"I never hear that, when people get in there and get what they wanted. It was very empowering," she said. "It was beautiful for the commissioners and for the mayor, for them to give back."

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