Muy caliente! Zumba instructors Kareen Underwood and Patricia Dablah are heating up the dance floors at gyms across Fayette County, helping both women and men melt away the pounds while having fun. Spend any time around them and you’ll see — their energy is contagious.
At first glance, Kareen Underwood seems to have it all: a career in education (she teaches at Brooks Elementary School), a second career as a highly successful fitness instructor, and a loving husband and talented son. But it wasn’t always that way for her.
Kareen’s story begins in San Jose, Calif. Growing up, Kareen loved to perform and attended Lincoln Center Performing Arts School, where she specialized in dance and voice. Her home life, however, was troubled. Her mother, a full-blooded Sicilian, was absent for long periods of time, and her Mexican father was often at odds with the law. He went to prison when Kareen was in the tenth grade, leaving her homeless and without anyone to look after her. She dropped out of school and moved from place to place, even sleeping in a bus station for several nights. Kareen admits she could have easily gone down the wrong path, but she knew she wanted something different for herself. “I believe that we do not have to be products of our circumstances or our environments,” she says. “God has given us free will and the power to choose.”
Ever resourceful, Kareen found a friend who took her in. The friend lived with her sister, a single mother caring for several children in a cramped one bedroom apartment. “There were eight of us living in that tiny apartment! I slept on the couch. That’s how tight the Mexican community was,” Kareen explains. “We took care of each other.”
Kareen knew the arrangement wouldn’t be permanent, so she enrolled in cosmetology school and worked evenings to save up enough money for her own place. She finished cosmetology school by the time she was seventeen and was able to support herself on her own for the first time. Kareen worked as a hair dresser for several years, but deep down she knew she wanted something else.
After her father was released from prison, she moved to Tacoma, Wash. with him and continued to work as a cosmetologist. She also began taking courses at a local community college where she was able to obtain her GED. More than anything else, Kareen wanted to go to college, though she realized that paying tuition would be difficult on her salary. She found the solution to her dilemma in the United States Air Force.
Kareen served six years active duty in the Air Force during Desert Storm at Hahn Air Base in Germany. She distinguished herself, and was eventually awarded an Accomodation Medal, an Achievement Medal and a National Defense Medal. She was also able to put her love of music and dance to good use while in the military, beginning when she entered a talent show at her base and won first place in the vocalist category. She went on to audition for the USAFE (United States Air Force in Europe) Showcase and landed a spot, which enabled her to tour Europe with the performing group and visit bases in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Turkey. “It was amazing,” she says of the experience. “I got to see Europe doing what I love most — dancing and singing.”
Kareen’s son Joshua was born in Germany in 1990, and shortly thereafter she returned to the United States with baby in tow by way of Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. Although she was no longer in a relationship with Joshua’s father, she followed him to Dayton Beach, Fla. and finally did what she had always wanted to do: attend college. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Central Florida.
Kareen eventually married Robert (“Woody”) Underwood, an aircraft mechanic and fellow martial arts enthusiast, and the family moved to Georgia in 2000. She was first introduced to the dance/fitness movement by way of “Groove” — a pre-cursor to Zumba — at World Gym in Fayetteville, becoming a certified Groove instructor in 2006. She also taught Kick and Step classes.
Zumba was just a natural progression for Kareen, as it was for friend Patricia Dablah, whom she met at World Gym in Peachtree City. “Patricia is from Guadalajara, like my father,” Kareen says. “Dancing is in her blood.”
But Patricia seemed the most unlikely of dancers at birth. She was born with a congenital deformity, club foot, which required multiple surgeries in her childhood. Her father, an oilman, moved the family to Ciudad del Carmen, an island in Campeche, where she learned to dance with friends, something her mother discouraged. “I don’t know if she was afraid I’d hurt my feet or if she thought I might be embarrassed,” Patricia says, but she continued to dance anyway. Her love of music and dance couldn‘t be subdued.
When Patricia was a teenager, her parents divorced, and she moved back to Guadalajara with her mother. The following year, when she was just 16 years of age, her mother died. Patricia remained in Guadalajara and finished high school on scholarship, but she knew she had to further develop her skills to be able to enter the workforce and support herself. Hoping to give herself an edge in the job market, Patricia enrolled in English and computer classes.
As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Patricia was nineteen when she met and fell in love with an American studying medicine in Guadalajara. They married a year later and she followed him back to America in 1998. The couple spent time in Minnesota, where son Alexander was born in 2000, and New York, where daughter Victoria was born in 2002.
After another move to Washington state, Patricia, a stay-at-home mother, saw an advertisement for Zumba on the Latin channel. She ordered the Zumba DVDs and loved it. “I did Zumba in front of the TV!” she says. “It was so much fun to do and I loved the music!”
Soon Patricia was attending Zumba classes at the local YMCA, where she began to drop some of the weight from her two pregnancies. However, when she and her family moved to the Atlanta area in 2007, she had a hard time finding a gym that offered Zumba. “I couldn’t believe it — there was no Zumba here yet!” she recalls.
World Gym in Peachtree City was the first in the area to add Zumba to their offering fitness classes. The classes were taught by Arlene Perez, who recognized Patricia’s talent and encouraged her to pursue certification. Patricia put it off, lacking confidence at the time, but then her world was knocked off-kilter when her grandmother died. Suddenly she found herself thinking more about what she wanted out of life. “I had been a homemaker for several years and I realized that I needed to do something for myself,” she explains.
She began by earning her GED after taking prep classes through Fayette County Parks and Recreation. She also studied at home and became a U.S. citizen. Bolstered by her achievements, Patricia finally worked up the nerve to attend classes for Zumba certification in Athens, but it took her nearly ten months to find the courage to actually teach a class. Her new friend from World Gym, Kareen Underwood, helped her along the way. “I remember telling her to look up,” says Kareen, “Project yourself — smile!”
Patricia’s first job teaching Zumba was at Ultimate Fitness in Peachtree City. As with most new Zumba instructors, Patricia’s classes started off small. “Once I taught a class to five people,” she remembers.
After two or three months of people peeking into the aerobics room to find out what all the noise was about, though, she had more than thirty people attending her classes. The gym was forced to start a sign-up sheet for Patricia’s classes because people were packing themselves into the aerobics room like sardines with no room to move. “I was up against the mirror!” Patricia says. “But I love teaching a big class. The energy is so amazing!”
Now Kareen and Patricia attend Zumba conferences together in Orlando every year. Both ladies have also participated in Zumba fundraisers. Kareen, who sees her work as a ministry, has organized and participated in fundraisers for organizations such as the National Breast Cancer Foundation and American Heart Association. She has also helped local organizations, including the Breast Cancer Survivors Network, based in Peachtree City, and Loving Me Phenomenally, a local organization that helps African-American teenage girls by working to prevent pregnancy, date rape and violence.
“The thing that makes Kareen and Patricia so special is that they are able to connect with their students,” says Art Sivertsen, Program Coordinator with Peachtree City Recreation and Special Events, who has worked with both ladies. “And both have what I like to call Zumba ‘swag’ — they are the best in the business.”
Today, Kareen, who earned a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, is in her seventh year of teaching. She’s come a long way from the teenage girl sleeping in a bus station. In 2011, she and Woody established Fitness Caliente, a physical training service, with the goal of helping others improve their quality of life and overall wellness through a personalized fitness program, weight loss, and proper nutrition.
Of course, Zumba is Kareen’s passion. “There are no barriers in Zumba. Everyone can do it and it makes people feel good,” says Kareen. She teaches Zumba six days a week, between Fayette County Parks and Recreation and World Gym in Peachtree City.
Patricia continues to focus on raising her two children, but balances it with a life of her own, thanks in part to Zumba. She currently teaches two nights a week at Glenloch Recreation Center and has recently picked up some classes at World Gym in Peachtree City. “You can transform your life if you really take the opportunities that you get,” she says. “I became a Zumba Instructor after being a homemaker for 12 years, and I met so many wonderful people and share this passion of mine — music, dancing and working out, all at the same time. It is in you to make those positive changes and have a better life.”
Kareen Underwood and Patricia Dablah remind us that we are not just victims of our circumstances. These two ambitious, hard-working, and tenacious Fayette women overcame adversity and defied the odds — and that is inspiration for us all.