The minute Sucheta Pal entered her first Zumba class, she knew her quest to find happiness was complete. “It would give me the strength not just to battle my issues, but help me do what I was meant to do: connect with people and make them happy.”
Today, Mumbai-based Pal is a popular face across Asia for her efforts to spread the popular dance fitness programme that originated from Colombia. However not many know that the ZES (Zumba Education Specialist) who started her career out an electronic engineer was actually fighting depression, induced by work stress.
With its easy-to-follow dance steps that relieve the monotony of a gym workout and pulsating beats, Zumba has grown exponentially in the Indian fitness industry, (after a shaky start approximately 7 years ago). But for Pal, it is more than just an excellent workout. It set her on a path of re-discovery, gave her a successful career and saved her life.
Sucheta Pal with her students
“I was an average 25-year-old living in Mumbai with a stressful 9 to 9 job – nothing out of the ordinary,” she tells HuffPost India. “Except that I didn’t realise how unhappy I was with the stress of the job that took a heavy toll on my health and well being.”
Pal’s troubles began with a severe attack of Irritable Bowel Syndrome that would afflict her only at work. “I couldn’t sit in a meeting for five minutes or stand in an elevator with my colleagues. It was very embarrassing,” she recalls. The disorder persisted and became severe to the point that it that greatly affected Pal’s confidence levels and, eventually, led to anxiety attacks.
I wanted happiness. And my job was doing the opposite of that.
The only bright spot in Pal’s life was a Bollywood dancing class that she taught in her neighbourhood.“That one hour was bliss. I was happy and suffered no ailments,” she says. But as soon as she was back at work, her troubles came back with a vengeance.
Unable to cope, a depressed Pal consumed a bottle of sleeping pills. “I woke up in the hospital the next day, and felt terrible – physically and emotionally," she says, recalling those harrowing days. "But it also gave me clarity. I wanted happiness. And my job was doing the opposite of that.”
Pal quit her job, and set out pursuing what she loved. The experience was gruelling. “I went from earning Rs 30,000 to Rs 5,000 from three jobs,” she says. Pal took classes at the Danceworx academy, transcribed cassettes and managed a small fashion house. Working for an NGO, she’d also travel across the city to talk to school principals about the importance of speaking in and teaching English to students. “It wasn’t easy. I’d eat vada pao for meals and travel as cheaply as possible. But it didn’t matter. I was happier, at least.”
Pal didn't tell her parents what she was doing. “Dance wasn’t considered a career, and they would have discouraged me. After all, I could barely afford the vada pao," she says."I discovered a new-found respect for struggling dancers who use the cheapest means to get to different parts of the city to teach and follow their passion.”
Even after these drastic changes, Pal still felt she hadn’t recovered completely. Something was missing, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “The only thing I knew for certain was that I was made to do bigger things, connect to people, do something that made them and me happy,” she says.
Sucheta Pal with Zumba founder Beto Perez
In 2009, Pal and her husband shifted to the US where she discovered Zumba by chance and realised that she had finally found her calling. “The format of the programme matched my principles. It was about inspiring people, about feeling happy,” she says. Once she took to Zumba, Pal didn't look back. “I was no longer depressed, there were no panic attacks, instead I started feeling confident (especially as I got fitter) and happy.” Pal didn’t stop at Zumba; she also took other dance workout certification courses, such as Masala Bhangra and Insanity.
If you’re nice to people on your way up, you figure out how to network well, you’re never alone.
Once she had her ZES certification, she began making plans to introduce the programme in India upon her return.
She was not prepared for the negativity she initially faced, but took it in her stride. “Zumba had already entered India, and people didn’t respond well to the fact that a certified ZES from outside was trying to take over the market,” she says. “I had no support and was alone. Initially, all I could do was let my work speak for itself even though the company had heavy expectations from me about being a leader and a businesswoman who would officially launch this brand in the country.”
Once again Pal was facing a struggle but she was not deterred. She knew she had been through far worse. “It is not worth being a coward. If you have been given a life, go after it with purpose," she says, speaking about the can-do attitude that saw her through. "You are a cosmic blink in the universe, don’t take yourself so seriously.”
According to Pal, the fitness industry in India has a lot of potential but is still developing when it comes to professionalism and expertise. "A lot of instructors take classes without any proper know-how about fitness or nutrition,” she says. “This often leads to injury, boredom and many things, whereas an excellent instructor with a great regime can heal many health problems.” Pal encourages her instructors to take as many fitness and nutrition courses as possible.
It is not worth being a coward. If you have been given a life, go after it with purpose.
Pal finally got her first break at a training session in Pune when a booked instructor from Romania failed to show up after she couldn't get her visa. “I didn’t have my shoes, because it was so last minute, but went and did the course barefoot anyway,” she recalls, laughing. “A lady asked for her money back because she was expecting to see a ‘white face’. Today she is a trainer with me.” Pal loves the fact that it isn’t lonely at the top when it comes to the Zumba community. “If you’re nice to people on your way up, you figure out how to network well, you’re never alone. I have a huge support system today,” she says.
Another important collateral benefit of the fitness programme according to Pal, is that it promotes empowerment. She cites an example: “Two Gujarati ladies once came for training, and admitted that they had to fight with their husbands to give them the money [Rs 16,000]. When I spoke to them, their first reaction was that of surprise because they didn’t expect me to be as ‘ordinary’ as they were. Now, they are instructors earning their own money. Having observed their journey from start to finish gives me immense satisfaction.”
Today, Pal has trained 3,000 trainers, has countless classes and followers, and features in five television programmes. She is inducting 1,000 trainers this year into the Zumba fitness programme. In spite of her busy schedule, Pal claims to respond to every message or email within 24 hours. “It’s the value system the programme has imbibed in us. It’s about the community and our students first,” she says.
Pal has been witness to a trend, an ongoing one, that fills her with a sense of pride and satisfaction. “There are corporate goers who have quit their full-time jobs to teach Zumba and other fitness programmes. They are earning five times the money they were, and are happy,” she says. “Dance has grown in this country, thanks to visionaries like Shiamak Davar, Ashley Lobo and Remo D'Souza. Television has glamourised it. We have paved the path for ourselves and our children to translate passion into a successful career that gives us bliss instead of just earning money.”
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