Iran has undergone a health revolution in recent years, with gyms and fitness clubs opening in many neighborhoods.

Share story

TEHRAN, Iran — To those Iranians shaking their hips and backsides to Latin American music during Zumba exercise classes, Iran’s Muslim clerics — and a U.S. company — have the same message: Stop it. It’s illegal.

The country’s Zumba fans, however, are refusing to back down.

Iran has undergone a health revolution in recent years, with gyms and fitness clubs opening in many neighborhoods. Men lift weights to become buff; women sweat in aerobic classes to stay lean.

As in many countries, Zumba, an aerobics dance class, has attracted a wide following, especially among women who gather a couple of times a week to work out to upbeat tracks by singers like Ricky Martin and Shakira while losing weight.

“It’s fun. It’s positive,” said Sunny Nafisi, 33, a Zumba instructor who works in an upscale Tehran gym. But recent days haven’t been fun or positive, Nafisi admitted.

An edict issued this month by the head of the Sports for All Federation, a government institution promoting sports and a healthful lifestyle, effectively banned Zumba classes for being contrary to Islamic precepts.

Ever since, Nafisi’s phone has been buzzing with messages from depressed Zumba aficionados who feared their fitness parties, as some describe the classes, were canceled.

Even her mother-in-law called from California to ask if this was the end of Zumba in Iran. “Of course not,” Nafisi fumed. “Zumba will not be stopped.”

Gathering for fitness dancing is just one of many examples of the tensions between Iran’s changing middle-class society and those ruling the country.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s Shiite Muslim clerics have codified into law hundreds of lifestyle regulations, meant to keep their flock on the right path. In their world, things like drinking alcohol, mixing between men and women, and dancing can lead to committing sins.

Sins can undermine families, the cornerstone of life in Iran, so it has been decided that these temptations, and many others, are illegal, as an extra push to make sure they do not happen.

But they do happen, because enforcement can go only so far in a society completely changed over the last 40 years. While prosecutions can result in fines or caning, they are not common, and Tuesday, thousands of men and women danced in the streets to celebrate the Iranian national soccer team’s earning of a spot in the World Cup.

Today, many Iranians shrug off most of these sins, saying it should be up to individuals to decide if they commit any.

In practice, this means popular but proscribed activities, including Zumba, are often tolerated if they take place semi-hidden or under a different name.

“I taught Zumba for years here,” Nafisi said. “But instead of calling it Zumba, I called it ‘exercise to music’ so no one would notice.”

Then, another Zumba instructor started calling her classes by their real name four years ago. When authorities did not react, many other instructors, including Nafisi, swiftly followed. “Suddenly it became free,” she said. “Maybe they just stopped caring.”

Until this month. In a letter, the head of the Sports for All Federation, Ali Majd Ara, decided Zumba wasn’t one of the accepted sports. The problem: Making “rhythmic movements” or “dancing” is illegal, his letter said.

Given Ara’s position, the letter was seen as amounting to a nationwide ban.

It took several phone calls to wake up Hossein Ghayyoumi, a clergyman and supporter of the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, from his midday sleep during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Zumba was not something he had been familiar with, he admitted, but when he heard of the ban, Ghayyoumi sat down at his computer and watched some videos showing it.

“In all honesty, I couldn’t help myself from moving in my chair,” said the cleric, 66, who has chronic arthritis. “This seems like good exercise … As a human being I immediately connected to the rhythmic movement. But as a cleric I am taught that dancing and music is pleasure-seeking and therefore haram, or unlawful.”

Even jobs related to dancing and music are unlawful, he said, like cutting wood to make an instrument.

Iran’s clerics were not the only ones opposing Nafisi. So, too, was the legal department of Zumba Fitness, the U.S. company behind the exercise. She said the company had revoked her instructor permit last year when she had written on a Facebook page related to the company that she worked in Iran.

Some U.S. companies interpret sanctions on Iran rigidly, and Nafisi received a letter saying that only if she moved to a different country would she get her instructor’s permit back. The company reimbursed some of the fees she had paid for training in Dubai.

“Zumba is illegal in Iran because of sanctions,” Nafisi said she had been told. “I told them what about Iran playing soccer with the U.S. team?”

She will go ahead with her scheduled Zumba classes in Tehran anyway, Nafisi insisted. “I have 40 students; they want to work out,” she said. “I’ll just rename the class.”