Whoever has danced up a sweat during a Zumba class knows what it’s like to work hard and play hard at the same time.
For Barbara Klontz, one of the earliest trainers of Zumba® Fitness LLC, the exercise program provided skills that are helpful in the high-stress world of the emergency room.
“I’m an ER girl at heart,” Klontz says. “I love the chaos and the challenge.”
As someone with an appetite for intensity, Klontz took what she learned from Zumba to the emergency room and enrolled in CU Nursing’s University of Colorado Accelerated Nursing Bachelor’s program (UCAN). She graduates from the program this month.
The path to Zumba
Barbara Klontz in Zumba® action
A certified fitness instructor since she was 17 and a Colorado native, Klontz earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1997 from Colorado State University.
“Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I got this message from feminism that I shouldn’t be a nurse because that was kind of a subservient female role and that I should want to be a doctor,” she says. “But I didn’t want to be a doctor, so I got my degree in psychology – and realized that I didn’t want to do that either.”
Spending time working with sexual-assault patients in Fort Collins piqued Klontz’s interests in working in the emergency room.
“When I was in school, I was an emergency and crisis rape counselor, so I would get paged to the ER and I was trained to help nurses with their exams,” she says. “What it taught me was while I am horrible at therapy, I really loved helping someone get through a crisis by helping someone else who could help them.”
She also was intrigued by emergency medical services (EMS) growing up.
“When I was 16, I had been given a medication I was allergic to, so the EMS had to come out and resuscitate me,” she says. “The parts I remembered about being in an ambulance seemed very cool.”
Later, Klontz worked as an EMT in the Denver area before moving to Chicago with her husband. While working as a fitness instructor at a gym in Chicago in 2005, she registered for a Zumba Fitness Instructor training to capitalize on the fledgling fitness trend, and she caught the attention of Zumba’s CEO and CFO.
“We had a long conversation and they asked me for feedback,” she says. “I sent them an email on what I would change, and they gave me the opportunity to be part of the team and hired me as a master trainer and later an education coordinator. So, I was one of the first 15 trainers at Zumba.”
What is Zumba?
For the uninitiated, Zumba is a popular fitness program that encourages people to dance their butts off to Latin and international music for a rigorous cardio workout. Co-founded in 2001 by Colombian dancer and choreographer Beto Pérez, the company claimed it had 14 million students in 186 countries in 2015.
In envisioning Zumba Fitness, Pérez wanted the music to be the “star” of the exercise sessions and not the instructors. Klontz says she developed a non-verbal “cueing” program based on concepts from sign language so instructors could communicate with participants without lecturing or disrupting the celebratory vibe of the classes.
“I used some of the popular concepts in American Sign Language (ASL) so we could show people what to do while retaining that non-verbal, supported, party-like atmosphere where nobody is wrong,” she says.
Klontz credits Zumba as a pioneer in diversity, equity and inclusion that is receptive to new ideas.
“We have instructors with Down Syndrome, instructors on the autism spectrum and instructors who are in wheelchairs,” she says. “We heard some criticism from the fitness industry and Zumba responded by saying that ‘fitness is for everybody.’ I’m proud to be part of a program that does that.”
As a professional group exercise instructor over the years, Klontz taught other Zumba instructors all over the world. Trained as an EMT, she provided medical support at the first few massive annual Zumba Instructor conventions in Orlando, Fla., which draw 8,000 enthusiasts from all over the world.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says. “I got to be on their media circuit for a time and interviewed on TV, and it was great.”
Feeling the pull to nursing
Barbara Klontz working in the ER
At the height of popularity for Zumba, Klontz says she was traveling all over the US and the world up to 40 weeks a year.
“On weekends, I would fly to my territories in the U.S. or foreign countries for two, nine-hour trainings, burn 5,000 calories and be home again on Mondays,” she said. “Then I’d teach Tuesday through Thursday and fly out on Friday. It was insane!”
When the pandemic hit in early 2020 – temporarily shutting down fitness clubs – Klontz began to feel the pull toward her career as a paramedic or a nurse.
“I felt the pandemic gave me the perfect opportunity to get back into school and do my prerequisites,” she says.
When Klontz started working as an emergency department tech for Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton in June, 2021, she noticed that she had a knack for dealing with difficult and violent patients.
“Something really unexpected happened when I was working my shifts,” she says. “I have always been good with working with people, but it took me a while to warm up. Zumba forces you to make connections with people on at least a superficial level immediately. I needed to control the energy in the room – especially when performing in front of hundreds of people.”
One night during a clinical for CU Nursing, Klontz said she cared for two patients who were violent addicts.
“They had previously hit staff and I was able to help them have a better night,” she says. “Of course, they tested their boundaries, but I think Zumba trainings have taught me how to adjust and respond to that energy in a way that I didn’t know before. That’s been really helpful for me.”
While she remains involved with Zumba, Klontz took a break from the ER and the exercise program to focus on the UCAN program, which she describes as a lifechanging but demanding curriculum.
“I taught (Zumba classes) once or twice over the year, but that was literally all I could handle,” she says. “Starting in the new year, I will be back to doing trainings, but I am going to delay doing weekly classes on a regular basis until March or April until I get settled.”
“I love ER because it’s always a team. We need to have each other’s back, or the ER doesn’t function.” – UCAN Student Barbara Klontz
Though Klontz plans to take a breather after graduation, she plans to hop right into the emergency room again soon. She feels she found her people on the UCAN track with EMS backgrounds.
“We all tend to be a little brash,” she says. “We like to do stuff that’s hard and there’s a rough side to our personalities. We swear a lot. I love ER because it’s always a team. We need to have each other’s back, or the ER doesn’t function.”
As someone who is drawn to the more difficult aspects of working in the ER –including working with psych patients – Klontz is considering getting training as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (or SANE).
“I figured out that I have pretty big shoulders, and that I can take on people’s grief,” she says. “It makes me feel good to help.”
Though Zumba was a great career, Klontz says she’s looking forward to the next phase of her life.
“My husband and I talked about it, and we want enough money to retire and do what we want, but neither of us wants to quit working,” she says. “I thought it was a good idea to do stuff I am passionate about.”
Her advice to future UCAN students: “It’s going to be hard and don’t try to make it less hard,” she says. “Just lean into it. You are about to do something that can change people’s lives. You are going to earn your position as a nurse and it’s going to feel really good when it’s over, so put your head down and just do it.”