What Do Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Zumba Instruction Have in Common?

I am not a good dancer. It is a well-known joke in my family, and my sisters stop dancing at times to laugh at me. Actually, sometimes one laughs so hard that she has no choice but to stop dancing…But I have fun, and it is an area that I will readily admit needs improvement.

Three years ago, my mom suggested that we join Zumba together. For anyone who is not familiar with Zumba, it is a Latin fitness dance class. For anyone who is not familiar with my mom, she is the only person I know who is less skilled as a dancer than I am. When I realized she was not joking, I agreed to try it.

The first class, I could not get my body to cooperate with any of the movements. If I got my legs to move the way that I thought they were supposed to, when I tried to add the arm movements, my legs stopped and my body was an uncoordinated mess! If you think this story has one of those fairytale endings where I become an exceptional Zumba dancer and go on to teach my own classes….Spoiler alert: That doesn’t happen.

If you’re asking what this has to do with Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), well…you have a valid question, but stick with me.

When I got in the car with my mom and she asked what I thought of the class, I said, “I don’t think I’m going to do it anymore. This is not for me. It’s too hard and my body doesn’t cooperate. It’s going to take me FOREVER to be able to learn even one song!” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I flinched…Could this be how the students I work with feel about talking?

Every day, I go to work and ask everyone to push their limits. I ask students to learn to use AAC because they will be able to tell everyone whatever they want and everyone will know how smart they are. I ask teachers to learn one more thing and help the children learn to use a device in their classroom. I ask parents who look at me with fear in their eyes and say, “I can’t even program the GPS,” to learn language systems and device programming in addition to all of the other responsibilities they carry every day. I ask Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) to change and try something new, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. I can hear my own voice saying, “The more you do it, the more natural it’s going to seem.”

Before I go any further, I just want to clearly acknowledge that communicating is infinitely more important than being good at Zumba. My world will not be drastically different if I can’t remember the steps to “The Roof is on Fire.” I’m using this analogy because most people can agree to the basic premise – whether it’s due to poor coordination, lack of rhythm, or a shy personality – that “not everyone is a good dancer.” But here is what I think: unless you know otherwise, the ability to speak is taken for granted.

Parents-to-be pray for a healthy child. They hope for a boy or a girl or that their child will have Mom’s blue eyes and Dad’s athletic ability, but the average parents-to-be don’t say, “I hope my child can talk”…unless they have the education or personal experience to know that not every child develops the ability to speak. Speech is natural and develops systematically without direct instruction…unless it doesn’t. Even parents who have a nonverbal child have said, “I just can’t wrap my head around the thought that my child can’t talk. Everybody talks.” When you know that verbal speech doesn’t always develop easily and without effort; when you spend hours in speech therapy with a child who is struggling to imitate a sound; and when you see frustration in the eyes of children who can’t get their thoughts out of their mind, well, then it becomes a miracle that children learn to talk.

So if you’re asking what any of this has to do with Zumba…again, you have a valid question. Let me explain…

After that first class, I felt like it would be hypocritical to quit Zumba because it was difficult, awkward, and unnatural for me, so I kept going (My mom stopped after 6 months). Every time I was in class, trying to keep up and not cause any injuries, I found myself thinking about AAC. I am reasonably sure I was alone in my thoughts. I would watch some of the other people in the class and think, “How are they doing this so effortlessly?” and I started paying attention to the dynamic of the class.

If you’ve been reading this to figure out how these two very different topics tie together, thank you! Here are some Zumba lessons that we apply to AAC:

When cognitive attention is required for movements, it is very difficult to hold a conversation. If you have to think about how your body is moving, it is almost impossible to think or talk about anything else. I stay as far to the back corner as I can. I don’t have any “friends” from Zumba because I can’t talk during class, and when it’s over, everyone leaves, chatting with their group of friends. There is a middle-aged, Asian business man in the back of the class with me. He wears a button up work shirt and basketball shorts to Zumba. He and I are about equal in our skill level, which isolates us in a class of dancers that range from average to excellent in their abilities. Occasionally, we exchange a smile in solidarity, but we’ve never spoken, and we are certainly not friends.

It’s difficult to develop friendships when so much concentration is required for the class activity. When motor movements become automatic, people are able to focus on another activity. Some of the students in class are able to hold conversations because their bodies know what to do, so they can focus their attention elsewhere. This is the reason motor planning is so important in AAC device use. If students have to focus on the movements, they can’t concentrate on the message. When the movements become automatic, they can shift their attention to the content of the language. Allow time to explore and be patient before expecting complete sentences and conversations. After 3 years, there are two songs that I feel like I know well enough that I could talk and keep up with the movements simultaneously.

If you’re not able to respond, you’re working too hard. If you are working so intensely that you can’t answer, slow down and decrease the demand. For Zumba, this refers to breathing and the breath support required for speech, but for students using AAC, it also applies. If a student is not responding, decrease the demand. Model two words instead of three or instead of asking, “What did you do on Saturday night,” try a less specific demand with more “correct” answers such as, “Tell me something about your weekend.”

Keep moving and you’ll make progress. If you miss a few steps, march in place and then join in again. Just don’t give up, or you lose your momentum. For students using AAC, there are lulls in the use of their device. They may seem to only ask for specific items or may only use one or two words for a length of time. Progress is subtle, and sometimes we don’t see how far a child has come, until we look at where he/she started. Keep teaching and modeling even if you don’t see immediate results. Eventually, it will seem familiar to the student, and the steps will fall into place.

Sometimes, on days when I’m lucky and my body is more cooperative and my mind seems sharper and more focused, I feel like I belong. I feel like I can keep up and that maybe my skills are improving, and they are. On those days, I glance in the mirror, and I laugh to myself because I think of this picture:


But because it’s fun and I feel like it’s good for me, I show up and I try.

Modifications are key. If you are not able to jump because you have bad knees, walk in place instead. If you can’t kick your leg in the air, step forward instead. If a student is having a difficult time, adjust so that they are successful. If he is having a difficult time touching a button on the secondary screen, turn off the link to the secondary screen so that the word is spoken with one touch instead of two.

The instructor is crucial to the tone of the class. I have had various instructors throughout the years, and now I go to the local gym. There are instructors whose class I try to make even when I’m exhausted because, in addition to the exercise, I feel good about being there. I’ve nicknamed the instructors (in my head of course): Miserable Instructor, Boring Instructor, Teaching Instructor, and Broadway Instructor. Some instructors are easier to follow than others and some are challenging, but supportive.

I skip the classes with “Miserable Instructor” altogether. If I was learning to be a mortician, I may tolerate someone who appears annoyed at the presence of people, but not in a Zumba class. I tried her class twice, just in case she was having a bad day the first time. Apparently, “miserable” is her teaching style.

“Boring Instructor” is easy to follow because she does the same songs and the same steps every time. She also repeats a lot of the same steps in different songs. She doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t talk to the class, and rarely does she appear to enjoy herself. She does her job and mumbles “thank you” at the end of class. It’s still good exercise, but it’s not fun.

“Teaching Instructor” is sweet and bubbly. She loves dancing and is a teacher by day. She offers choices of songs, talks about her day briefly, and smiles supportively at class members as she’s dancing. Sometimes she’ll make eye contact in the mirror and accentuate a movement if “someone” is not doing it correctly. She gives excellent verbal cues when she’s trying to explain movements. She’ll say things like, “Wiggle your arms like a jelly fish,” or “Pretend a string connects your hand and foot, so they move together.” She also pre-teaches. When she is doing a song that has fast movements like the Brazilian Samba, she goes through the movements slowly and counts the steps before she turns on the music. She starts very slowly and exaggerates each movement, then gradually increases the pace. In her class, I feel supported and successful. She is consistent, but she adds a new song every few weeks, and every class is different and enjoyable.

“Broadway Instructor” is my personal favorite, but if I had tried her class on that very first day, I may have been overwhelmed enough to quit. I believe, in her younger years, she may have been part of the Russian Ballet. She is graceful and rhythmic and moves easily and with purpose, her feet barely touching the ground. Her class is fast-paced and challenging, but she gestures so that the students can follow and have an idea of what comes next. If she is going to kick her right leg, she’ll tap it just before it’s supposed to be kicked in the air. Her dances are complete with facial expressions, tip toeing, and choreography where two sides of the room divide and face each other. If she catches your eye in the mirror, she smiles…and if you don’t have it exactly right, she smiles, nods her head purposefully, and accentuates the movement so that you can refine and make corrections. Randomly, she’ll yell, “Freestyle!”, and during that time anything you do is “right.”. She walks around during the more physically demanding dances with words of encouragement. There is no way you are going to drop your raised, but exhausted arms to your sides when someone looks directly into your eyes and says, “You’ve got this.” You just believe her.

Over the years, as I have formed this analogy, I have noticed these same “instructor styles” in the schools. I’ve also been conscious of these strategies that have helped me learn new motor tasks when I work with students. Maybe more importantly, I make a great effort to be conscious of how the students feel when I’m teaching them. I try to linger between the “teaching instructor” and the “Broadway instructor.” When I know something is challenging, if I look them in the eyes and say, “You’re awesome, and you’ve got this,” they work to prove me right…and they do.

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13 Responses to What Do Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Zumba Instruction Have in Common?

  1. Megan Shepherd says:

    Love this article – thanks. 🙂

  2. Jane Farrall says:

    Awesome post – thank-you so much! Fabulous analogy and great points!

  3. deb wittes says:

    this is a great post because it transcends teaching, zumba, and AAC. This is a recipe for living a positive life and understanding that the people with whom you associate, whether it be socially or work related, are elevated by your manner, and the way you treat them, as well as demeaned and lowered when your manner is not pleasant or not supportive. I loved it!!

    • Well said, Deb! Thank you for taking the time to read it and putting so much thought into it. You are absolutely right… We choose how we affect people’s lives and they respond based on how we make them feel.

  4. Kathy Brown says:

    My 27-year-old daughter would love this article! Right on. She had to suffer through years of having AAC presented wrong. She’s to the point where she can use her device when she wants and how she wants and use other, easier means, to get easier communication accomplished. How I do wish, when she got her first device, Zygo Macaw when she was about 7, that her teachers would have believed in her being able to communicate. None the less… she communicates! And, gets quite frustrated when you don’t understand. Aren’t we like that?

    • Absolutely! Everyone wants to be understood and respected when they make an attempt to communicate! Using AAC is hard work so I can only imagine how frustrating it is to put all of that effort into telling someone something and having him/her not get it or dismiss the AAC user as being incompetent. I’m so glad your daughter was able to persevere and can communicate effectively! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      • Annette Collins says:

        What an excellent analogy, Heidi! You have a gift with words and made motor planning easy to understand. I will take your helpful advice and apply it to Patrick as he is learning his AAC device. I betcha “someone” is better at Zumba than she thinks!

        • Thanks, Annette! I’m glad you found it helpful! Also, thank you for the vote of confidence, but I focus on trying to make sure I’m going in the right direction so I don’t run into anyone. :). It is fun though, if you’re ever interested…

  5. Gina Garriott says:

    As both a Zumba instructor AND a SLP in a public school, I found your post to be both informative and insightful! As a Zumba instructor, I always encourage newbies to keep coming back or at least to come 3 times and to try different instructors before giving up. Just as you illustrated, we all have different personalities and teaching styles. I explain that we are like different flavors of ice cream; everyone has a favorite and others that they like also. As a SLP, I have worked with clients/students that use AAC devices both low and high tech and can relate to your comments on how frustrating it can be to focus on motor/cognitive strain while trying to communicate! Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I appreciate you sharing your experience and your willingness to persevere and go outside your comfort zone in your personal life in order to be a good model for those you serve.

    • That’s great that you’re both! It puts things in perspective to push outside of your comfort zone. I’m always so impressed that everyone seems to know how to move when I’m constantly watching the instructor to figure out what to do next!:) Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  6. Caitlin says:

    I loved this. It really puts things into perspective. I hope I can balance there between Teacher Instructor and Broadway Instructor with you when I start work as a SLP.

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