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Highland Park teen, mom teach ‘virtual’ Zumba, connecting people across the country amid pandemic

Julia Kerpel, 15, is one of the youngest instructors in the country licensed to teach the dance-fueled Zumba.

Julia Kerpel, 15, is a certified Zumba instructor.
Julia Kerpel, 15, is a certified Zumba instructor.
Brian Rich /Sun-Times

When Illinois schools started to shut down in mid-March because of COVID-19, Highland Park High School freshman Julia Kerpel didn’t want to stop teaching Zumba.

So with the help of her mom and fellow instructor Melissa Kerpel, the 15-year-old turned their unfinished basement into a fitness studio and has kept offering classes twice a week thanks to a laptop and the internet.

“We’ve had our old familiar faces and some new people from all around the country who have joined us,” said Julia, who’s believed to be one of the youngest instructors in the country licensed to teach Zumba.

Before the pandemic hit, Julia and her mom taught at Highland Park High School and the Lutz Family Center, with many participants coming from Working Together, a non-profit that supports low-income families in Highwood and Highland Park.

Just a few days after their last face-to-face class, the mother-daughter duo decided to give online teaching a try. The class went off without a hitch; participants receive instructions on how to join the class via Zoom.

“Everyone loved it,” Julia said. “We got some positive messages, and we thought, ‘Let’s keep doing it.’”

There have been a few challenges.

Not everyone taking their classes is computer savvy, and some have limited access to the internet. One participant does not have a smart phone, and her only access to a computer is at the public library, which is closed. So the Kerpels gave her a portable DVD player and some Zumba DVDs so she can keep dancing during the stay-at-home order.

Julia is a third-generation Zumba instructor, with both her mom and grandmother, Inez Garber, teaching the Latin-inspired, cardio-dance workout, though Garber isn’t co-teaching with her daughter and granddaughter at the moment because she’s sheltering in place apart from the family.

“I love everything about it. Everyone can do it, no matter their dance experience or background,” says 15-year-old Julia Kerpel about Zumba.
“I love everything about it. Everyone can do it, no matter their dance experience or background,” says 15-year-old Julia Kerpel about Zumba.
Brian Rich /Sun-Times

Julia’s love of Zumba started when she was 3 or 4; that’s when her mom started taking Zumba classes. “She loved it so much that she got certified and would bring me to her classes. I just fell in love with it ... the fun and party atmosphere,” Julia said.

“I love everything about it. Everyone can do it, no matter their dance experience or background. They show up and they have such a great time.”

Julia and her mom have had to dispel some misconceptions about Zumba: “People who are my age think it’s only for their moms and grandmas, which is completely untrue,” Julia said. “And the older generation thinks because they’ve never had any dance experience, they can’t do it.”

After years of doing Zumba — as well as ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance — Julia last year at the age of 14 was certified as a Zumba instructor.

“It’s not super common, but even just this (past) week we had a 17-year-old instructor in the D.C. area who’s been teaching virtual courses,” said Rebecca Dorfman, director of public relations and branded content for the Miami-based Zumba Fitness LLC.

“We do license people who are around her age as long as they have parental consent” and the parent is present while the teen is teaching, Dorfman said.

Kerpel said her daughter teaches under her supervision primarily for insurance purposes. Julia will be able to teach on her own when she turns 18 and plans to teach on her own when she goes to college.

While she declined to say how many licensed instructors are teaching Zumba, Dorfman said thousands of classes are now being offered virtually and more than 1 million people are participating. “Before this, there was no virtual component to Zumba.”

At a time like this, when so many people are under stress, Dorfman said any kind of movement is “super important.”

Deerfield resident Lisa Rosenberg agrees: “The fact that Zumba moved online is an absolute godsend for sanity, for health, for connection.”

Rosenberg, who takes classes from the Kerpels several times a week, said every hour of instruction flies by. And she’s even persuaded her husband to give Zumba a try because he doesn’t have to leave the house. Julia and her mom are “really easy to follow, so upbeat — which is important especially now.”

“She’s such a joy to watch. She always has a big smile on her face,” Rosenberg said of the teen instructor, who she jokes is helping Rosenberg keep off “the COVID 19” stay-at-home pounds, a reference to the “freshman 15” weight gain many college students experience during their first year away from home.

“Everyone morning I get up with them and I do the workout. And it helps me,” Rosenberg said.

Though they plan to keep offering some virtual classes once in-person instruction can resume, the mother-daughter duo looks forward to being back in the same room with their participants, who range in age from young children to grandmas.

“We miss being with each other and the joy and energy we create when we are dancing together,” Melissa Kerpel said.

To sign up for Julia’s classes, go to https://www.zumba.com/en-US/profile/Julia_Kerpel/1786633, or find her name on zumba.com.