Zumba Changes Lives, from Teachers to Rock Stars – Literally!

My friends and I tried Zumba at other studios, but nothing could compare to the classes at Salsa and the Suburbs. I couldn’t imagine going anyplace else!

Zumba Changes Lives

Since its inception in the 1990s, Zumba has forever altered the dance fitness industry. This workout implements movements and rhythms from traditional dances, like the tango and salsa to reggaeton and hip hop.

The result?

A pulse-pounding, adrenaline- boosting and life-changing workout.

Just ask January’s students of the month, Audrey Neill and Courtney Jansen. Both students came to Salsa in the Suburbs seeking to supplement their current fitness regimens, unsure of what to expect, and haven’t looked back!

Neill, a seasoned teacher at St. Dorothy’s Catholic School in Drexel Hill, was encouraged by colleagues to give Zumba a try. Already an avid walker and Weight Watchers member, Audrey seized the Salsa in the Suburbs special offered on Groupon in June 2012 and “hasn’t stopped since.”

Similarly, Courtney Jansen, lead singer of Gypsy Wisdom, a Philadelphia area cover band, sought a new way to exercise. Friends mentioned they loved Zumba, so she gave it a try.

“I was hearing a lot of great things about Salsa in the Suburbs…I also knew two girls who were instructors and students there.” Like Neill, Jansen purchased a social media special and attended a Zumba class with her sister. She says, “I was hooked from the first class!”


Audrey recalls initialing feeling intimidated. “It took a few months for me to feel confident enough to relax and just enjoy myself.” But her commitment to her health goals kept Neill and her friends coming back for more. “My friends and I tried Zumba at other studios, but nothing could compare to the classes at Salsa and the Suburbs. After a class with Beth, I couldn’t imagine going anyplace else!”

At Salsa in the Suburbs, instructors focus on each individual student, giving them the support, encouragement and direction they need.

“I was coming with girls half my age who had done some exercise prior to Zumba…Beth was an incredible motivator and very supportive, she engages all of her students.”

Jansen agrees, stating that “the energy, skill level and motivation are a huge part of what keeps me coming back.”

And come back they did! Now, just over a year later, Neill boasts over an 85-pound weight loss, surpassing her initial weight loss goals. She attributes this to her love of and dedication to Zumba classes. The benefits of which have affected her life, both in the studio as well as in the classroom.

audrey TWO

Before and after! What a difference Zumba makes!

“Most noticeably is my stamina…As a Kindergarten teacher, I am on my feet all day. Before Zumba, I would walk up four flights of stairs and have to rest before having a conversation. Now, I can literally jog up the steps and talk the whole time.”

Jansen, no stranger to high-energy performances, has seen dramatic changes as well. “Zumba has increased my endurance, and I can really jump around the way I’ve always wanted to. I also smile when I catch myself adding some moves from class to a Lady Gaga song or Rihanna dance beat.”

Beyond their wellness goals, both Neill and Jansen enjoy the Zumba community offered at Salsa and the Suburbs. Courtney appreciates the overall friendliness of the studio, “I’ve seen some Salsa in the Suburbs’ students at Gypsy Wisdom shows, including [instructor] Beth.”


When Audrey was scheduled to go on a vacation, she couldn’t imagine being away from exercise class that long. Beth gave Neill her playlist so she could do Zumba while away from the studio. “That speaks volumes about the caring, supportive [staff].”

Now, as Zumba regulars, both ladies encourage people of all ages and fitness levels to come and see results for themselves. Continual changes in routine moves keep regulars consistently challenged, and new dances being added guarantee an energetic “sweat fest,” says Jansen.

For those a bit hesitant, Neill recommends, “Whenever anyone new comes to class, I encourage them to do what they can, not to be frustrated with the routines, and just relax and enjoy it!”

Ready to get in shape – the fun way? Try Zumba!

From Two Left Feet to Salsa Blackbelt: An Intimate Look at a Loyal Supporter

Wes Sturgis has been an indispensable volunteer for Salsa In The Suburbs Dance Studio and one of its most loyal supporters.

Wes helped founder and artistic director Julie Berger paint the studio before its opening. He helped transport and set up sound equipment when salsa socials were held at outside venues, routinely arriving home just a few hours before sunrise. He regularly attends additional classes, beyond those in which he himself is a student, so that there would be an experienced dancer who could work with beginning dancers.

WESWes remembers feeling extremely uncoordinated before joining Julie Berger’s studio in the fall of 2008. He signed up for 10 private lessons and recalls having trouble mastering basic steps, and distinguishing salsa songs from merengue rhythms. But he refused to give up and made gradual improvements through force of repetition.

Wes has become one of the studio’s regulars on Tuesday nights, “performance class night,” and he would hardly know how to occupy his time if he weren’t taking dance classes.

For Wes, the studio has become a home away from home. He has taken every single performance class ever offered, so many that he has actually lost track of the actual number. He estimates about a dozen. He keeps coming back because he enjoys learning new dance moves, developing new friendships and a sense of camaraderie. He considers his fellow dancers like a “second family.”

WES2He enjoys a bond and connection with other salsa enthusiasts that remains intact even if they no longer come to the studio or don’t go out salsa dancing as much, if at all. Wes still goes out to dinner with former dance partners from years earlier.

There have been numerous outings, including whitewater rafting, canoeing, concerts, trips to Longwood Gardens as well as biking and hiking in Fairmount Park and other cultural events in the city. And, of course, they’ve gone out for nights of dancing too.

“You make a lot of friends, and I like that. Who’s got too many friends?”

Wes had never danced before arriving at Julie’s studio. But he was motivated to learn after realizing he knew nothing about Latin dancing while on a first date with a Latina woman from South America. In his initial email to Julie he wrote, “We went dancing at Cuba Libre a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t keep up and felt like a dweeb.”

Fast-forward five years and it’s obvious that all those dance lessons are starting to pay off for Wes. He’s an assistant teacher in Beginner Salsa classes on multiple days per week and wears a t-shirt which says “Blackbelt in Salsa,” which Julie presented to him for his birthday.

Julie, who met Wes before finding a home for her studio in Media just off Route 1, said Wes has been an immense help.

“He is a great dancer and an even better person,” Julie says. “Wes helps out with everything, including having painted the studio before we opened our doors to moving tables and chairs for set up and break down at salsa parties at outside venues and even promoting the studio. He is one of those people I couldn’t do without.”

“I’ve always volunteered all the time for stuff like that,” Wes says.

WES3Persistence paid off in more ways than one. Wes is now one of the Beginner II Salsa instructors. As a result, he has gained a new level of self-confidence.

“I became the guy who had three left feet to a guy who teaches class,” Wes says in classic Wes style, with a mix of humor and modesty.

He sees his personal growth as an ongoing “journey” that he still enjoys.

“I dread the day when I stop,” Wes says. For now though, the Garnet Valley man is definitely savoring the moment; call it “sabor Latino.”

Julie says, “Wes is the poster boy for how transformational Salsa in the Suburbs’ can be. He is proof that someone can walk in with very little dance ability and no prior experience and become an advanced dancer. He will be the first to admit to our beginner students that it took him ten hours of private lessons to master what our students learn in two group classes. He has worked very hard and his brain has become a salsa sponge and he picks up patterns very quickly and you should see the ladies line up to dance with him!”

“I’ve always been blessed to have wonderful dance partners,” Wes says. “I’ve been very blessed to have the best dance partners a guy could ever want. It’s because of them, I’ve been able to accomplish so much.”

Written by: Wilford Shamlin III


Salsa Helps to Reclaim Personal Power after Traumatic Injuries

Salsa Dancing Rehabilitation Physical Therapy

A vehicle operated by a hit-and-run driver changed her life but salsa dancing became the vehicle by which she reclaimed her personal power.

Two of Julie Berger’s students, Darren Hepke and Kristen Gilia, turned to salsa dancing after undergoing traumatic experiences that changed their perspectives about life. Salsa dancing was revitalizing on multiple levels, helping with their overall well-being and energizing their spirit.

The ever-athletic Darren was regaining his strength and coordination after a spinal cord injury left him temporarily paralyzed. Kristen was looking for a fun activity with a low-risk of injury after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a street. They both found salsa dancing invigorating and inspiring as they recovered from serious injuries.

Darren Hepke

darren hepkeIt’s been about four years since Bryn Mawr’s Darren Hepke, 26, a three-sport athlete, added salsa dancing to his list of accomplishments. He enjoyed the mental challenge of learning new moves that require hand and foot coordination. There were also the physical benefits of dancing in addition to the social aspect of meeting new people in a fun atmosphere.

“It was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Hepke said. But a tag football game on Dec. 9, 2012, would give him the scare of his life. After reaching for a high pass, Hepke came down and fell backward and hit the ground so forcefully that two discs were dislodged from his spinal column. He jogged back to the huddle, but it was only a matter of minutes before his right arm became immobile. Moments later, he was fully paralyzed and had to be flown to the hospital in a medical helicopter.

Hepke spent two months in rehabilitation. Doctors were uncertain whether he would regain mobility, let alone play sports again. But he made steady improvements. He told his doctors that salsa dancing would be a part of his physical therapy and was eager to get back to it along with all of his normal activities as soon as possible. He came back to salsa class just 9 weeks after his accident, and didn’t let a neck-brace stop him from participating in his first class back. Then, just 14 weeks after the accident, was able to drive and went back to playing soccer after 18 weeks, shying away from contact and being careful to avoid exerting himself. He played while his right foot felt weak but he wanted to test himself.

“I pushed the limits by going back to salsa and sports so quickly, but it challenged me to see where I was and what was really weak,” he said. “Physical activity is a really big part of my life.”

Thinking about life partially, or fully, paralyzed was emotionally painful for a man who had played high school varsity soccer, ice hockey and golf. He followed the doctor’s orders to the letter and worked hard on his rehabilitation.

Hepke’s life is back to normal, so much that he pauses when he is asked which arm was weakest during his recovery. There are no residual effects from his spinal cord injury. Hepke feels triumphant in being able to go out salsa dancing again and has even successfully taken the most advanced salsa class offered at Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio.

Kristen Gilia

Salsa Dancer Kristen Gilia

Kristen Gilia, 27, of West Chester, is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. At first glance, you wouldn’t guess that she copes with a permanent injury after being struck by a hit-and-run driver as she walked across the street during the early morning hours of September 2, 2007, moments after parting ways with her best friend.

It’s easy to miss the 8-inch raised scar from her right elbow to her right shoulder if you aren’t looking for it. Her right arm was shattered, her pelvis fractured in three places and she suffered bruising to her brain. She used a wheelchair and a walker for three months as she learned to walk again.

The skin around the injured part of her upper arm never completely healed. She has some mobility but she can’t make an arm movement that most people take for granted. She can flap her arms like a duck, she says, but can’t raise her hand above her head.

She is a classically trained and passionate dancer, having taken hip-hop, jazz and tap dance classes since the age of 5. She looks incredibly comfortable on the dance floor and you’d never guess that she has an injured wing that must always be handled gingerly.

“If you don’t know how to dance with me, it’s very likely that you could hurt me,” Gilia says.

If her partner lifts her arm too high for a dance move, or accidentally brushes against her scar, she can experience painful spasms. But it’s a risk she willingly takes. A vehicle operated by a hit-and-run driver changed her life but salsa dancing became the vehicle by which she reclaimed her personal power.

Kristen at Salsa in the Suburbs

“I stopped my life long enough,” Gilia says. “Finding salsa dancing was like falling in love again after you’ve had your heart broken.”

For two years after the accident, Gilia stopped being herself. She would hang out with friends but stopped participating in the activities that brought her the most joy. Gilia stopped playing softball rather than risk being pegged in the arm by a ball, which happened a few times before she quit the game. But she eventually made an agreement with her mother who taught her a lesson about collateral damage.

“If you’re stupid enough to do it, you’re stupid enough to get hurt,” Gilia said, recalling her mother’s words.

The message was that pain is temporary and can be endured but passions run deep and should be nurtured. Dancing was more than just plain fun. It was liberating.

“I stopped my life long enough,” Gilia says. “Finding salsa dancing was like falling in love again after you’ve had your heart broken.”

Salsa Dance Party Halloween

Can you find Kristen in this photo? Of course you can!

Gilia joined Salsa In The Suburbs Dance Studio after her friend, Luis Sierra, recommended salsa dancing as a fun activity that had a low-risk of injury to her arm. She now takes salsa classes regularly and attends social dances sponsored by the studio where fellow dancers have learned to improvise on the dance floor in order to avoid aggravating her arm injury. She is also often front and center when performing with one of Salsa in the Suburbs’ performance classes. Her injury is so unapparent to the unknowing eye, that she is even one of the few who has been hired to dance professionally for the studio.

Gilia said that returning to dance has been rewarding because it’s given her the opportunity to educate people about her injury. She says her openness has helped alleviate the awkward moments that arise when people are uncertain about what to say or how to dance with her.

She believes her dance partners have become better leaders because they are aware of her physical limitations and adapt their style accordingly, remembering to lead more turns with her left hand rather than her right and using her injured arm sparingly. Some very interesting moves and patterns often result!

Julie, Darren and Kristen’s dance teacher says, “It’s just amazing how many benefits there are to dancing! They’re endless. So many people come here for an emotional escape, and it’s therapeutic for many. But the physical benefits are also numerous. I feel so fortunately to have seen both Darren and Kristen tackle dancing with such determination and grace and to have not let their injuries hold them back from reinventing themselves as great dancers.”

Salsa Classes at Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio

Come Join Our Salsa Classes for Some “Sexy, Healthy, Fun” – Happiness Guaranteed!

–Written by Wilford Shamlin III

Yes! There are Great Guys, Waiting to Dance with You!

Scores of single people have passed through Julie Berger’s dance studio since opening the doors more than six years ago. The founder of Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio says she strives to create a warm, inviting atmosphere that encourages friendly interactions and creates “low-pressure opportunities” to meet and mingle with other single people.

Two of her regular students, Chuck Moore and Joseph Boyer, have won her endorsement as great guys who epitomize the wonderful personal transformation that can result from entering an unfamiliar environment that takes them out of their personal comfort zone, challenges them and pushes them to fulfill their potential.

“They both have made incredible friendships,” Julie says.


Joe’s “Friends!”

Chuck, who lives in Springfield Township, remembers hitting rock bottom about three and a half years ago. A serious relationship ended abruptly, and he admitted to being a “total wreck.” After a buddy invited him to a salsa dance party held at The Media Inn, Chuck decided to join Salsa In The Suburbs Dance Studio, who hosted the event.

He committed to taking dance lessons at Julie’s studio and soon forgot about his personal troubles. “It brightened the day. That’s one of the reasons I will always love that place and keep going,” he says. Eventually, Chuck signed up for performance classes and found himself in the company of “fun, cool people.” He began to tear down the emotional walls that he had built around himself and opened up toward his fellow dancers. After becoming involved with the studio, Joseph and Chuck developed friendships that extend beyond the dance studio. They plan road trips and participate in activities together, whether it’s heading to the karaoke bar, eating out, sharing in a hobby or exploring other interests.

Salsa dancing has helped Chuck overcome shyness. He is now confident in approaching women and asking them for a dance, even if they are more experienced dancers.


Chuck’s “Ladies!”

Julie gushes about both men. She describes Chuck as generous, very thoughtful, and romantic. She says Joseph is not only a great listener, but enthusiastic and encouraging. Julie says it’s much easier to connect with someone within a studio. By comparison, a salsa nightclub can play loud music and the environment tends to be more impersonal than her studio, which is a hub in the salsa dancing community, offering small-group classes and practice sessions.

Joseph widened his circle of friends who he invites to his home for parties and receives invitations in return. He enjoys the camaraderie and their sense of humor. Friendships developed at the studio provided a sense of belonging.

“I really wouldn’t have had that if I hadn’t joined Salsa in the Suburbs,” says Joseph. “I was definitely much more shy when I joined the studio. It opened up a social side of me that I didn’t really know existed.”


Joe is now one of the most experienced dancers at the studio.

“I don’t think I would have had the confidence before to take such a big risk,” Joseph says.

Chuck also talks about how the shared experience at the studio has resulted in deeper friendships.

“You become very close to these people. You really do become family,” Chuck says. He likens his close friends to a “second family,” offer comforting words at a difficult time, sharing positive thoughts, or just sending text messages asking him what’s going on, or if he needs anything.

Chuck has a reputation for bearing gifts on Valentine’s Day for all the women enrolled in performance classes with him, intended as a token of appreciation regardless of their relationship status.

“I know what it is like to not have somebody on that special that day,” Chuck says. “It’s a little surprise that makes the day better.”

Words: Wilford Shamlin III


Yes, Men Attend Zumba!

Derek Crews, Ken Ezzell, and Tony Messina are among a growing number of men who show up regularly to Zumba classes predominantly attended by women.

Derek Crews, Ken Ezzell, and Tony Messina never heard of the Zumba dance fitness craze until it was already wildly popular in Philadelphia and New York City. But the trio is among a growing number of men who show up regularly to Zumba classes predominantly attended by women.

These men say they keep returning to Zumba classes because they get a great workout. It doesn’t feel less like exercise because Latin dance steps are incorporated instead of standard aerobic fitness moves. And it’s all done to mostly world music, including Salsa, Merengue, Ragaeton (Spanish hip-hop), and a sprinkling of top radio hits.

derekIn March 2011, Derek started taking Zumba classes regularly at Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio. Subsequently, he lost 145 pounds, and later became a certified Zumba instructor. However, he feels most proud about his mother, Carol Bryant, joining Zumba: “My mom taking Zumba, dancing in public, is a monumental achievement. She hates to exercise but she likes to dance. So she fooled herself into thinking she’s not exercising.” And now mother and son are hooked. She regularly accompanies him to Zumba classes on Saturdays.

Tony MTony Messina, a singer-songwriter with South Philadelphia roots, said he’s usually the only guy in his Zumba class. He fits right in though, and since starting in January 2011, has made many friends. He wants to stay in shape for public performances and has found Zumba is helpful. He enjoys the flexibility of setting his own pace, deciding when to push himself.

“It’s a great workout. I’d recommend it to anyone,” said Tony, who believes some guys may shy away from Zumba classes because they are generally more self-conscious about dancing in public than women.”

Tony even wrote a song called “Oomba Zoomba” (downloadable on iTunes) and encourages guys to try Zumba at least once. “You might even meet your next girlfriend, wife or the love of your life,” added Tony.

There’s a lot of variation between Zumba classes because some instructors emphasize aerobic fitness while others place a greater focus on dance.

Ken has been taking Zumba classes for the last few months; His wife Polly sparked his interest after she came across a great deal for Zumba classes at Salsa in the Suburbs. Ken, who was coping with a chronic lower back injury, was apprehensive about exercising.

Ken EzzellHowever, the low-impact Zumba classes did not cause him any pain, and he foresees taking Zumba classes with his wife for a long time to come.

“It’s great for us as a couple. We talk about class. We encourage each other. It’s something we both can do together,” he said.

It has also helped the 62-year-old man stay up to date with current music trends. He now enjoys chart-topping music. This ex-marathon runner, stays physically active by taking Zumba classes regularly and foresees taking Zumba for a long time to come.

Nicole Lanciano, who has been teaching Zumba at Salsa in the Suburbs since 2009, says “Zumba was designed for everyone, and is all-inclusive. It doesn’t matter the age of the person, whether or not they have dance experience, or their gender. It actually was created by a man, so maybe if more guys knew this, then they’d come! I do love having men in the class since it raises the enthusiasm and makes the class feel even more like a party!”

Staff Spotlight: Linda Pang, Not Just the Pretty Face Behind the Desk

Julie Berger was planning a trip to France during the summer of 2009, and she needed someone who could teach her dance classes and run the studio. It wasn’t long before Linda Pang’s name came to mind.

-QANBUaT-X9CCb3kwDOqMyEnRb3vXoA3le-L5_uVR0ITo many people, Linda is the friendly face behind the desk. She’s very busy, greeting regular students and inducting new customers, explaining class descriptions and schedules, taking payments and answering calls.

But she is more than just a pretty face behind the desk. She is the stage manager who sets the scene for a smooth experience. “Ever since she started helping out, Linda has gradually learned almost ALL the aspects of running the business,” Julie says with pride. “She even teaches me things. I had no idea just how smart she was.”

Julie says Linda’s attention-to-detail, as well as her creativity and wonderful ideas, have helped contribute to the studio’s success and growth. “No matter what challenge comes her way, she always rises to the occasion and delivers a top-notch experience.”

Linda says the job is challenging and the pace hectic. Sometimes, there’s little down-time and multiple tasks must be handled simultaneously…

“Usually, I’m trying to be five people at once,” Linda says with a laugh.

But she says she can accomplish work quickly and efficiently by anticipating problems and brainstorming potential solutions. In the course of her shift, Linda is greeter, sales representative, and event planner for studio sponsored events. She also handles marketing and social media. She updates the studio’s website regularly; handles ticketing, and creates and distributes promotional material.

And it may be a surprise for some: Linda is also a Salsa instructor.

Linda, who teaches Beginner I and II Salsa, says it’s not uncommon for people to tell her: “I didn’t even know you danced.”

Linda first came to the studio because of her passion for dance. She was the only female student to challenge herself to learn the traditional male role of “leading” for a Salsa Performance.

Linda has been a familiar face at the studio for more than three years and Julie says that many students have given Linda rave reviews. “Linda is talented, effervescent, professional, and motivating,” Jason Connor, one of her students said, after having completed her Beginner II Salsa course.

By understanding the footwork and technique for “leaders” and “followers,” she says she can teach “finesse,” or subtle signals that increase communication between partners on the dance floor. “I can show it better, having been on both sides,” she says.

linda_dancingJulie wants the whole salsa community to know just how grateful she is for Linda’s hard work over these year past few years, “I cannot believe how lucky I was to find her. I’ve heard that the best business people hire people smarter than themselves, and finding and keeping Linda on board for so long, has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. She has worked by my side for hours late into the night, attended every single special event, and really has based her life around the demanding schedule of the company. She has worked as hard as any partner would, and has made a huge contribution. I hope she will continue to prosper with Salsa in the Suburbs, or wherever she may go.”

–Written by Wilford Shamlin III