This week, Deeba Hasan sits down for coffee with Marissa Pontilla, one of Oman’s first Zumba instructors who believes that life is a gift we should enjoy to the fullest
As I leaned forward to add another sugar to my cappuccino, I expected a reaction from Marissa Pontilla. It felt like I was breaking an unwritten rule by acting in such a way around someone whose life revolves around fitness. When I mention it, though, her response surprised me: “I think people should enjoy their lives rather than worrying too much about things like having a little extra sugar.”
For the uninitiated, Zumba is an energetic aerobic fitness programme featuring moves inspired by various styles of Latin American dance that has taken the world by storm. Marissa is largely credited with bringing the phenomenon to Muscat, when she began giving classes at Al Bustan Palace in February 2013. Over the course of our chat, I realised that, as far as fitness instructors go, she is far from conventional.
Dancing has been a huge part of Marissa’s life from the tender age of eight. Her biggest supporter was her mother, who always encouraged Marissa to follow her passions. Along with her three siblings, Marissa was sent to an institute for dance, where she developed her innate talent for the art. She then graduated with a degree in physical education in her home country of the Philippines.
After moving to Oman in 1989, Marissa started working for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) as a fitness instructor, where she remained for 11 years. With more than a decade of aerobics and fitness instructing under her belt, Marissa decided it was time for an exciting change and headed to Bangalore, India, to discover Zumba. “The music and dancing were completely addictive and I knew I had to make Zumba a part of my life.”
Founded in the 1990s by Colombian American dancer Alberto Pérez, Zumba borrows elements from both dance and aerobics to tone the body and keep fit.
So what is the ethos of Zumba? “It’s all about dancing, having fun and feeling good about yourself,” Marissa says, adding that it can also be a family activity. “My son is 15 and my daughter is 10 and my son can dance really well now.”
Marissa is the kind of person who needs constant stimulation to keep things fresh and interesting and says it is this trait that was behind her leaving her secure job at PDO.
“I wanted a change from the normal routine and I think if I’d carried on with that job, it would’ve probably become a little boring for me.”
Even while working at PDO, Marissa kept researching the latest trends in fitness and that’s how she found out about Zumba.
Fast forward to 2014 and Marissa now runs the Zumba Fitness Studio at Al Muneif Sports Centre in Al Khuwair with the help of a business partner. She enjoys her Zumba classes for two hours each day, one in the morning and the other during the evening. “When I instruct my students, it’s like we are all in a party, just dancing and having fun. It doesn’t feel like work at all and that is the best part about my job.” She also loves being her own boss, saying: “When I worked at PDO, I would have to seek permission every time I wanted to travel or try new things, but now I can just take my car and plan a road trip at any minute.”
Marissa has reached the point where her name has become all but synonymous with Zumba in Muscat. She went to a summer camp last year where the kids referred to her as “Aunty Marissa Zumba” and “Ms Zumba”.
Her dedication to the discipline has seen Marissa travel to workshops around the world, including a Zumba conference and workshop in Orlando, Florida, where she was asked to come on stage by Alberto Pérez himself.
The Zumba master didn’t recognise the Omani flag badge she was wearing, but Marissa says: “It was there that Pérez advised me to take Zumba training to Oman. I did what he said and not only am I am proud of it, I’ve never looked back.”
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