Described as Zumba on crack, Alexandria’s homegrown Sensazão Dance Fitness crew will give you the sweatiest, sexiest workout of your life.
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Gabriela Espinoza, Diego Delgado and Jazmin Espinoza with Sensazão instructors.
“It’s pronounced SEN-suh-zow, and it’s like Zumba—but much more intense,” said my friend Melissa, trying to get me to try Sensazão Dance Fitness last year. “And it’s very difficult to master. Want to try it?”
When we arrived at the studio, located then on the basement level of Alexandria’s Landmark Mall, past the wig shop and Sears, someone handed me a number: 40-something. Wow, I thought, there are that many people waiting for a class 20 minutes ahead of time?
The class started. The sound system blasted. In Portuguese, a singer growled intense directives over super-complicated drumbeats while the Sensazão crew, owners Gabriela, 29, and Jazmin Espinoza, 33, and their partner Diego Delgado, 27, danced on the stage, hair whipping, bodies perfectly in synch with each other and their brainteaser-like choreography—a combination of salsa, samba, flamenco and hip hop set to heavy doses of batucada, axé, Brazilian funk, reggaeton, soca and dancehall; beguiling, drum-heavy Latin American and Caribbean musical styles.
I flailed and hurled myself around trying to follow Gabriela, whose lean, muscular body seemed to fill each beat of music with 150 twerky, twisty Latin mystery movements. It was like a Mensa test that depletes electrolytes.
After an hour, I was bent over and gasping—and laughing. I was also fully addicted, ready to move heaven, kids and work schedules to get to this class every day. And I am not alone.
This is Sensazão (Portuguese for sensation), opened in 2009 by the Espinozas—sisters from Bolivia who first came to the U.S. in the early-2000s with their parents, Sabino and Gaby. Now, by day, Gabriela is a civil engineer with the City of Alexandria, and Jazmin a doctor, preparing to take her boards to practice in the U.S. Despite their intense day jobs, the sisters teach full-time at the studio. People come from across Greater Washington—from Woodbridge to Chevy Chase, Maryland—to attend the hour-and-a-half classes that are so packed on weekends, attendees knock into each other, splattering sweat on the cushioned hardwood floor. (It’s been said that if you give it your all, you can burn more than 1,000 calories per class.)
Each day, about 250 people attend the five or six classes the studio offers (including SensaKIDS classes for children ages 3 to 14), taking a number and waiting their turn to get in to avoid disagreements about where they will stand in the class. And it’s not just people in the D.C. metro area who are drawn to the crew’s lightning-fast moves.
After Gabriela, Jazmin and Diego began making videos of their routines and posting them on YouTube, people around the country started building workout routines around them. Gyms in other states as well as in Brazil and Bolivia started calling, asking the Sensazão crew to come and give workshops. They have also held “Sensathons” in the D.C. area—gigantic, multi-hour classes that accommodate up to 500 people who travel in from all over the country.
The crew has had so much success that this spring, they plan to move into a bigger space near Alexandria’s Van Dorn Metro stop and certify more instructors so they can expand into other gyms; they will also release a DVD this year. But when the sisters began developing choreography together, the moves they came up with weren’t for anybody but them. They had always done this together in Bolivia when inspired by songs they heard in dance clubs, and then here in the states.
“Gaby would call me and say, ‘I just heard this amazing song!’ and as soon as we could, we’d meet at the gym when we knew there weren’t any aerobics classes in their studio, and we’d work to come up with new choreography for the song,” says Jazmin.
At first, their parents didn’t approve of the sisters’ penchant for dance. “My dad had always told us, ‘Dance? That’s not something you do for a living!’” recalls Jazmin.
But as Sensazão got bigger and bigger, they relented. In 2010, the sisters convinced their parents to quit their jobs and come work the front desk at the studio (their younger sister Diana is the manager). In fact, their mother is often spotted in class, as enthusiastic as everyone else whirling around at high speeds.
To what do the Espinoza sisters attribute their success?
“I think our popularity comes from the challenging, high intensity of the classes, along with our style of choreography,” says Gabriela. “That, and the fast results people get. They like that.” Indeed.