Salt Lake City’s west side neighborhoods remain mostly dark in the early morning hours — a notable exception being an LDS Church, where the parking lot fills up by 5:30 a.m. Inside, high-energy music plays and people move to the beat.
This predawn party is actually a multicultural exercise class that blends Zumba and other island dance moves in movements designed to tone the body and provide an aerobic workout.
Sinai Misinale Pauni, who became licensed to teach Zumba in May 2010, launched the free class 17 months ago but had no idea the community-based activity would become so popular.
“Everyone jokes that we’ll need a bigger building. It’s growing,,” Pauni said.
A previous location was one-third the size of the Glendale ward house at 900 W. 1210 South.
“And now we’re at the seams again,” said Teuila Aagard, spokeswoman for EMZ Crew, as the class is called.
It also has its own Facebook page.
Even as the group grows in numbers — it started with one teacher and three students, and has expanded to 14 instructors and more than 300 participants — many of the early morning devotees are shrinking their personal girth.
For example, Pauni, 37 and a mother of five, has lost 80 pounds and dropped eight clothes sizes. She keeps a “before” photo as a reminder.
“When I was that size I didn’t think I was big. But I compare that picture to now and I think why didn’t somebody tell me? It helps me because I don’t want to go back to that.”
When a cousin her age learned he was at high risk for diabetes, Pauni took note and got serious about shedding weight.
Today, however, her daily motivation to get out of bed and exercise comes from many sources. In the Tongan culture, families stick together and that fact is clearly evident, even at 5:30 in the morning.
Soni Olive, 19, began coming to the EMZ Crew class about two weeks ago. At a recent session, he wore an oversized yellow T-shirt bearing the words “Seize the Day.”
“I like the fact that I get to sweat and exercise in the morning before I go do my day’s work,” Olive said. “Losing weight is a good thing.”
Mom Lua, 39, said that friends and family carpool to the church every morning.
“It’s done a lot of good for me,” she said. “I feel healthier, I get a lot more done at home and it just keeps me going every day.” She’s danced off 15 pounds in three months.
Chairs line the back of the gym, set out for people Pauni affectionately calls her “golden oldies.” Lua Olive’s mother, Fatai Mounga, began coming with her daughter and at age 64 sticks to the back row, where she can do more quiet body movements.
“It’s good exercise,” Mounga said, noting that her goal is simply to be healthy.
Even 9-year-old Emma Olive gets in on the action, dancing for an hour with family and friends before going home to prepare for a day of school.
Pauni’s parents also participate.
“We really enjoy it,” said her mom, Lupi Misinale. “It’s just like a family. You come in, have fun, exercise, go home — and have a good day.”
It has only been in the past few months that the men have started to join in. During one island melody, a hula instructor led the dance. While the women, some wearing silver “jingle skirts,” gyrated hips and tummies, some men did Polynesian knee moves.
“Our male population is slowly growing,” Aagard said. “They used to stick to one corner but now they’re mixing in.”
Music ranges from hip-hop to Latin, Polynesian to Tahitian — and cultural and ethnic backgrounds blend as participants pursue a single goal.
“You don’t realize you’re working out,” Pauni said. “You just think you’re dancing and yelling and cheering.” And in that process, participants can burn 600 calories to 1,000 calories, depending on their size.
With all the different ages in the room, exertion levels vary, but Pauni said she has one basic rule.
“If you’re not having fun, and if you’re not moving in the same direction, then we’re in trouble,” she said.
Mary Sue Floisand, 45, said she’s been involved for almost a year now and drives in regularly from Rose Park with several of her friends.
“It’s been amazing,” Floisand said, pointing to the socializing and stress relief that the endorphin-generating exercise has provided “It gives you a lot of energy and pulls you out of what you’re dealing with.”