On a recent Saturday at lunchtime Michael Aredes leans his bike against a park bench. He's in a white helmet, sweating from his ride and holding an iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts in a plastic cup. About 10 women are lined up on the sidewalk, socially distanced, wearing masks and leggings, but also ski hats and vests.
"Good morning everyone. Happy Saturday," Aredes says.
He leans over and sets up two miniature speakers on the pavement. In these crazy times Americans are turning to little things to help them stay sane and find joy. For this group of bundled up New Yorkers, happiness comes in the form of Zumba class outside. And Aredes is here to lead the class, pandemic style. Safely, outdoors.
"Thank you guys for being here again. I'm really, really grateful," he says. "Any injuries you have ankles, knees, back, shoulders, please make any modifications to make it work for you. And the last thing and most important thing is to always what?
"Have fun," the class echoes.
And with a "let's get the show on the road guys," Aredes starts the music pumping. Walk by one of the classes he leads in a Brooklyn park or on the sidewalk and it's practically impossible not to notice him. He's a big dude — easily 6-ft-tall — with an even bigger spirit. His hair is in a scrunchie and he's clapping his hands over his head, calling out "hey, hey" while lunging, twisting and doing graceful dance moves with his hands. It feels like you are just a few feet away from cheerleading practice or a Broadway rehearsal and Aredes is the choreographer.
But this is January. Both the sky and the narrow city sidewalk the students are lined up along are grey. It's cold enough to make your glasses fog up behind your mask so students like Gwen Knowles, are zipped into winter coats.
"I have extra warm special socks on. I have thermal underwear and a vest and a coat and gloves and before I was wearing mittens on it and a hat," she says.
The pandemic has been hard for Knowles. She lost her mom. But she's grateful to be alive and healthy and able to pay her bills. And, like a lot of the students here today, she craves safe interaction with other humans. So she comes out despite the cold. A few feet down the sidewalk, Felice Tebbe says she comes to Aredes' class four days a week.
"Every time I come, I'm uplifted and I'm like, I can do this," she says. "The quarantine, you know, the lockdown. It's a game changer. Changes my whole demeanor."
Before the pandemic, Aredes was a bartender at the kind of upscale New York City restaurants that have a lot of dollar signs next to their names in guidebooks. He also taught Zumba a couple of days a week at the YMCA. When the pandemic hit he moved class online and then, once the weather warmed up, moved it outdoors. But his dream was always to work in fine dining, and the pandemic has put that on hold. So like some of his students Aredes sometimes struggles too. Before last March he pushed himself and valued how busy he was. "The New York hustle," he calls it.
"I think the hardest thing is to realize," he says, "[is that] I can't always keep myself running the way I thought I needed to be. I needed to take a moment to slow down and enjoy the time I have. Just enjoy my life a little bit more."
An old man stops to stare from behind his mask. Kids, too, 'til their parents tug at their hands. Aredes leaves a stack of business cards out on a bench. He's used to the attention joy brings these days. A few minutes later 36-year-old Anna Levy stops to watch.
"Fun feels like a — like a novelty. You know? And I'm just like, yeah, here it is. We don't need that much. Just this awesome human standing in front, and calling and dancing," she says.
Aredes' students love him. Ask them about him and the words "love" and "life saver" frequently come up. But in a touching, almost Hollywood moment, he says he's just as grateful for them.
"Everyone is looking for something to give themselves that moment of pause that moment of happiness, something joyous to do," Aredes says. "And this, this, for me is something that makes me super, super happy."
An hour later the class has tripled in size as students trickled in late. Sweaty and disheveled despite the cold, students who'd stripped off coats or hats as they Zumba'd down the sidewalk don their outerwear again. Today's lesson is over. They've made it through another day, together.
"The schedule for next week is up," he tells the group. "Next Saturday is a 90-minute class for my birthday so we're going to have some fun."
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