Above: Marlene Colon, seen in second row, second from the left, leads an Aqua Fusion class with drumsticks. Photos by Carol Niemi.
By Carol Niemi
Do you ever wonder why some people seem naturally impervious to aging?
To find out, I recently spent time with Marlene Colon, a seemingly ageless local fitness instructor. If you’ve taken an aerobics or dance-based fitness class at any of the top fitness clubs in Dunwoody or Sandy Springs during the past 30 years, you’ve probably encountered her.
Certified in Zumba and LaBlast, both dance-based high-impact forms of exercise, Colon was trained by “Dancing with the Stars” fan favorite and fitness expert Louis van Amstel. She also studied adaptive physical education at Georgia State University and has worked as a choreographer and performer in local dance productions.
For years, Colon seemed to be everywhere, teaching classes and leading demonstrations at local festivals with students of all ages, including one who at age 104 took her chair-based fitness class at an assisted living facility.
But years of jumping up and down can take their toll. In 2002, Colon had surgery to replace both hips. She could have legitimately quit the fitness gig right then.
But instead she took to the water and got certified in Aqua Zumba.
“If I didn’t do water, I wouldn’t be walking,” she said. “I won’t say I have no pain, but I keep moving. They call me the Energizer Bunny.”
The next year, her leg muscles had become so strong she was able to cancel planned knee replacement surgery.
Now she teaches at a variety of health clubs in the area, including the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, the Concourse Athletic Club and a host of other smaller clubs.
Still, as a lifelong swimmer and gym rat who regularly works out with weights, I doubted Aqua Zumba could be much of a workout. So, Colon invited me to take her class at the MJCCA to prove me wrong.
Her class of 19 ranged in age from 60-ish to 93. Her deaf student was absent that day, but her student with dementia was there. Her energy and high-powered music quickly got everyone moving according to the best of their ability. You can’t imagine how many ways you can use water resistance to work your muscles.
Because she adds special touches to the Aqua Zumba routine, she calls her class Aqua Fusion. In one of her modifications, which she calls Aqua Beat, students use drumsticks to beat on and through the water to hyper tunes such as Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
“The men love it,” she said.
She discovered the drumsticks at one of the many fitness conferences she attends and wanted to incorporate them into her class immediately. But fearing the price of $50 a pair would be cost prohibitive for retirees who take the class for free through Silver Sneakers, she decided to make them herself.
“I wasn’t going home without stopping at Home Depot to find something I could make drumsticks out of,” she said. “I had a vision, but didn’t know till I went to the store what was available.”
In the plumbing department, she bought 20-foot lengths of white plumber’s pipe, 160 plastic caps in packages of two, and tubes of glue. She had the store cut the pipe into 14-inch pieces. The next day, she and her young granddaughter sat in her yard and glued the caps on the sticks to make 80 watertight drumsticks for her students.
Her goal is always to make her classes so much fun her students will keep coming back, something she learned early in her fitness career when she trained with the charismatic 1970s fitness guru Richard Simmons.
Based on what her students told me that day, she has succeeded.
“I’m 77, but feel like I’m 37,” said Galima, from Russia, who recovered from a pinched nerve in weeks thanks to Colon’s class. “It was 100% a miracle.”
“I’ve taken water Zumba for 30 years. She’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” said Louise.
“Before this class, I walked with a cane,” said Jayshree. “Now I can sometimes walk without it.”
Like some of the other students, Jayshree can’t swim.
By email, student Susan, who has been “profoundly deaf” since birth, told me she has no problem not hearing the music because she follows the movements, which Colon enthusiastically makes very obvious.
“She’s very warm and friendly and wants us to follow through,” said Susan. “I love that about her.”
“People live to take her class,” said student Sarah.
As for me, the gym rat, my muscles were sore the next day.