With every step, shimmy and shake, Zumba instructor Robin Gonzales hopes to prove smiling is contagious.
“It’s therapy, when you go in there, and you hear a song that you like, you get lost in the music,” Gonzales said. “You just can’t stop dancing.”
Gonzales started teaching five years ago, this month.
Her classes, packed. Safe to say, she’s got a cult-following.
“Just looking at her face, just makes you want to get out here and dance and have a good time,” class participant Amy Conley said.
“When I think about Robin and Zumba, it’s like craziness, it’s like total fun, dancing,” participant Mona Yang said. “Sweating is the game, I mean, if you didn’t come out of her class sweating, you’re didn’t have fun.”
But behind Gonzales’s larger-than-life smile, the laughs and the high-energy moves, you’d never guess the petite instructor has experienced war.
“I was deployed to Kuwait, and Jordan,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales served in two operations with the United States Navy: “Enduring Freedom,” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Gonzales was boots-on-the-ground, from checking-in all gear and personnel leaving the warzones, to duty.
“We did some frontline training, doing security around the base, patrolling, keeping all the other sailors safe, as well.”
A culture shock, she says, especially as a woman.
At times, Gonzales recalls intense fear. Times with no phone, or any way to connect with the home and family she loves.
“Just our weapons on us,” Gonzales said. “Going out there, and being a frontline and trying to provide safety for others, not knowing what will happen every day.”
Returning home, Gonzales says, some of the memories, remained.
“It was a little hard to drive. I was very aware of my surroundings, and I was just very, enclosed, it was very overwhelming.”
Gonzales says the Navy works with its returning servicemen and women.
She also chose to see a counselor, who suggested church and other social events.
“That’s when I found myself in the gym, I said let me try working out, got bored with elliptical, I saw a Zumba class,” Gonzales said. “I said let me go try a class, and from there, it’s golden.”
But some veterans have an even harder time readjusting to civilian life.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in any given year, 11 to 20 of every 100 veterans who’ve served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enuring Freedom, suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
Aniesha Kleinhammer and Hedy Rogers-Jones lead the “Fleet and Family Support Center,” which provides counselors and social workers, on base, to prepare returning servicemen and women, for life after.
Even sending staff to the fleet, serving thousands.
“We have families operating independently for 6, 7, 8, 9 months at times, so it’s very important to help them with any kind of ability to reintegrate as they return home,” Rogers-Jones said.
“Educators, financial counselors, a ton of resources, classes that we offer,” Kleinhammer said.
For Gonzales, the trauma not that severe. She still serves as a reservist in Lemoore.
The double-life has blown some of her longtime students, away.
“Knowing that, I just have so much respect for her, even more,” Yang said.
Now, Gonzales uses Zumba as a weapon, for change. To help people.
On this night, her students wearing green, in honor of May, “Mental Health Awareness Month.”
“The same way I had an instructor teach me the songs and dancing, I fell in love, she smiled at me, I wanted to do the same, and do it for others,” Gonzales said.
Sweat, and smiles.
Every Monday and Thursday night, for healthy bodies, and healthy minds.
“It’s a great feeling when someone says, you know I had a bad day at work, and then they come to class, and they see my smile, and they feel much better at the end of the class.”