Iranian Clerics and ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Agree: Zumba Is Sinful

The Iranian government just banned the popular fitness craze, but some rabbis have been arguing for years that exercising to Latin tunes can lead to pole dancing or prostitution

A Zumba workout class in Tel Aviv.
A Zumba workout class in Tel Aviv. Moti Milrod

The banning of Zumba dance exercise by Iranian authorities has grabbed headlines worldwide. Authorities in the Islamic Republic condemned the popular fitness classes for women as “contravening Islamic ideology,” and the head of the country’s sports federation declared that the dangerous Latin movements of the Colombia-originated exercise craze are “not legal in any shape or title.”

They were officially prohibited by Ali Majdara, the head of the federation, who issued a statement last week banning “Zumba and any harmonious movement or body-shaking instruction” in both public and private facilities – much to the dismay of Iranian women, who took to social media to complain they were being deprived of an enjoyable and healthy fitness activity.

But Tehran-based cleric Hossain Ghayyomi was quoted by the LA Times as explaining to the objectors that Zumba fell under the rubric of dancing, not exercise.

He said that under Islam, “any harmonious movement or rhythmic exercise, if it is for pleasure seeking, is haram (forbidden),” and “even jobs related to these rhythmic movements are haram. For instance, since Islam says dancing or music is haram, then renting a place to teach dancing or cutting wood to make musical instruments is haram too.”

If they were on speaking terms, the Iranian clerics and government officials might have found a sympathetic ear from rabbis in an ultra-Orthodox Israeli settlement when it came to setting Zumba policy.

Four years ago, the rabbinical court judge of the Ashkenazi community in Betar Ilit issued an edict explicitly forbidding Zumba “after having established that, both in form and manner, the activity is totally at odds with both the ways of the Torah and the holiness of Israel, as are the songs associated to it. I hereby announce that the organization and participation in such classes is forbidden.”

At the time, local women in the community reacted with anger resembling that of today’s Iranian women, accusing the rabbis of “wanting to turn us into Afghanistan.” Luckily for the Betar women, the ruling of a local rabbinical court had no effect on national policy and they could easily seek out Zumba classes in other nearby communities.

Ultra-Orthodox objections with the Zumba craze haven’t been restricted to the Middle East. In 2013, Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, founder and director of Ohr Naava – a New York-area Women’s Torah Center – took to the pulpit to preach against it as a slippery slope to sinful behavior. Respectable Jewish women, he said, were not meant to gyrate to “goyish provocative” music and “dance like an animal” or “monkeys in the jungle” to “Latin garbage.”

Zumba, he said, would lead to “pole dancing,” and pole dancing would lead to prostitution. Wallerstein’s warning was posted on YouTube; his remarks on Zumba begin at 39:00:

But as in Iran, there has been pushback against the rabbinical dictates from Zumba-loving Orthodox women. In some cases, they attempted to address the problems that their rabbis had with the exercise by giving it a kosher makeover, sanitizing objectionable lyrics to Latin songs, changing the music to Hebrew or other foreign tunes, and wearing modest outfits, in what they dubbed “Kosher Zumba” or “Jewmba.”