With her hip-shaking moves, easy-to-follow cues and brightly colored wardrobe, Catalina Mejia has made a splash over the past year as a Zumba instructor at Studio X in Gaithersburg. But when her students request private dance lessons, she tells them that they’ll have to work around her school schedule.
Then they always ask what college she attends. “And I have to tell them I’m a sophomore in high school,” says Catalina, who at age 15 has been certified to teach the aerobic fitness program for four years.
If that sounds like it has to be a world record, it is. Last month, after nearly a year of sending in paperwork proving her age and the validity of her training and teaching, Guinness World Records proclaimed Catalina the youngest Zumba instructor at 11 years 4 months and 12 days. And that age can’t be beaten now that Zumba has instituted a rule that instructors must be at least 16 to be certified. (That’s right: A 15-year-old has been grandfathered in.)
Although the piece of paper is nice, it’s certainly not why Catalina became a Zumba prodigy. And it wasn’t because she had pushy parents, though mom Patricia Arenas was the one who introduced her to Zumba. Arenas had taken a class at work and, knowing how much her 10-year-old loved to dance, brought her along to instructor Azuka Boutcher’s gym in Alexandria.
“The class was so full, and there was a huge line to get in,” Catalina remembers. The Latin moves and energy in the room reminded her of Colombia, where she’d lived until she was 5. She couldn’t have been any more awestruck, and then Boutcher invited her to come on stage and dance beside her. “I said, ‘If Azuka is calling you up, you’d better go.’ Then there was another song, and she just stayed onstage,” Arenas says.
Catalina was hooked on going to classes and soon asked Boutcher how she could become a Zumba instructor. The answer was simple: Go to the next certification.
She spent the next few months dedicated to her dancing, and then one morning in December, her mom dropped her off at Zumba instructor training. The course involved going over the four foundational rhythms (merengue, salsa, cumbia and reggaeton), practicing how to string steps together and learning how to structure a class. When her mom picked her up nine hours later, though they didn’t know it yet, Catalina was a world-record holder.
Most gyms aren’t about to hire 11-year-olds, however. (In Maryland, minors younger than 14 can’t even get work permits.) But something like the law wasn’t going to put a damper on Catalina’s plans. Sticking with her Zumba goals, she went to classes, practiced by teaching her parents and brother, worked on her dance steps in front of a mirror in the basement and began offering her services at family gatherings and friends’ birthday parties. She started a Zumba club at school.
Although some kids dump activities after a year or two, Catalina remained absolutely committed to Zumba. Part of her passion is fueled by her admiration of Beto Perez, the Colombian who created Zumba. “He’s my idol. I look up to him so much,” she says.
But Catalina also just loves the atmosphere that surrounds Zumba. “It’s a party. You meet new people, and there’s something new every time,” she says. “It makes you happy.”
It made her particularly happy the day she showed up at Studio X for a Halloween event in 2010. When co-owner Julie Hoang walked up to this talented girl, she found out she was meeting another certified instructor — and the ideal candidate to help launch teen classes at the studio.
“I was a little skeptical at first,” Hoang says. “But she’s not a typical teenager.” Catalina never had stage fright, immediately commanded attention when she got on stage and developed her own choreography.
For the past year, she’s been teaching kids’ classes and co-teaching adult classes at Studio X. On a recent Saturday, it was evident she knew what she was doing when she bounded in front of a room of 50 or so women and gave them some pointers for the next hour. “Go at your own pace. And smile! I’ll scream a lot, and you’ll scream, too,” she announced. (Catalina describes her instructor style as “bubbly and fun — I’m the Energizer bunny.”)
Even though she could keep going and going, Catalina limits her teaching to weekends. Her classes at Wootton High School in Rockville come first, she says. By that, she means the ones in which she’s a student, although she has led Zumba classes for faculty and students before.
She definitely plans to make time, however, to organize more Zumbathons, charity events that involve dancing for donations. Catalina put one together to support Japan last year after the earthquake and tsunami, and she’d like to raise money for a slew of other causes, including Latinas Unidas. She’s the president of her school’s branch.
In August, she’ll attend her first Zumba convention in Orlando, where she can’t wait to meet all of the top instructors. “I’m hoping to dance with Beto onstage,” she says. And further down the line, she wants to train other instructors, teach internationally and own a studio.
If Catalina ever doubts herself — which seems unlikely — she can just look at her certificate from Guinness. “It proves that if you love something, you should go after it,” she says.
Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.