Marciela Sanchez leads the “Sexy Moms Club” in a Zumba workout based on bailoterapia, dance therapy, near Bakersfield. “They get rid of tiredness, relax their minds,” said Sanchez, one of 80 certified instructors, or “promotores.”Michael Fagans / The Bakersfield Californian

LAMONT, Calif. – Like many women in the Central Valley, Elizabeth Sanchez spends her days in the fields, her back perpetually sore and her muscles tense from picking ceaseless rows of grapes, carrots and mandarins.

But every Thursday evening, Sanchez and about two dozen other women let go of their long hours and worries about bills, children, cooking and cleaning to become dancers.       

In communities like Lamont, Shafter and Greenfield, all near Bakersfield, dance therapy, known as “bailoterapia,” is taking hold as a force for women’s health, an affordable alternative to fitness clubs with fancy treadmills. The classes, led by “promotores,” or health promoters, meet in parks, recreation centers, even garages, each dancer’s shake and shimmy as individual as a fingerprint.

“They get rid of tiredness, relax their minds,” said Marciela Sanchez, 38, one of 80 certified promotores teaching dance therapy to an estimated 300 women, most of Mexican origin, throughout Kern County, one of the state’s most impoverished regions. “The music is harmony to the body.”

The dance classes draw homemakers as well as working women like Elizabeth Sanchez, who rises at 3 a.m. to work in the fields. The idea was conceived by Visión  y Compromiso, a nonprofit organization that coordinates a statewide promotores network. In addition to burning calories, women receive tips about nutrition, heart health and other issues.

They show up daily regardless of the weather, even if it means dancing in mittens. In Grissom Park in southwest Bakersfield, samba and other rhythms boom from loudspeakers, prompting women to dance with abandon – the more sensuous the hip movements, the better.

Socorro Molina (right) and Elena Bailon lead a bailoterapia class in Grissom Park. The dance therapy classes are taking hold in Kern County as a force for women’s health, an affordable alternative to fitness clubs.Casey Christie / The Bakersfield Californian

“I tell them, ‘Use it or lose it,’ ” said Elena Bailon, one of two promotoras teaching the class.

In nearby Greenfield, a group of about 45 die-hard dancers have christened themselves “The Sexy Moms Club.” Three of them are also Sexy Grandmoms  – among them Janet Torres, 40, who rocks in tight purple Zumba pants.

“Socializing with the group helps me,” Torres explained. “I feel more complete.”

Regular exercise, of course, is an important factor in preventing obesity and maintaining good health. Many students start dancing at their doctors’ suggestion – collectively, they suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other chronic diseases. Nearly one-quarter of Kern County residents age 65 and older have diabetes, according to the 2010 Kern County Community Health Needs Assessment.

The Central Valley consistently hovers at the bottom of national health rankings, with high mortality rates, said Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, a professor of clinical internal medicine at UC Davis and director of its Center for Reducing Health Disparities.

Part of the challenge for Latinas is cultural, Aguilar-Gaxiola said, with many women expected to maintain traditional gender roles while simultaneously working long hours. The stress can result in depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and social isolation. Thus, the benefits of bailoterapia go beyond shrinking dress sizes.

“It’s a pleasurable activity that promotes personal ties with others,” he said. “It opens up the senses.”

Veronica Rodriguez of Lamont rises at 3:30 a.m. to work in the fields, cooks dinner and then goes to class, a ritual that gives her more stamina, she said. At a recent class, she moved joyously, skipping from side to side as her arms swooped in tight circles like a cowboy with a lasso.

For many women, the classes bring a rare hour to themselves. Some bring children.

“Many times, the daughters drag the moms,” said Marciela Sanchez, who often notices initially reticent youngsters twirling and jumping by the last half of class.

For women committed to fitness, a challenge in communities like Lamont has been safe access to parks and other public spaces.

“The doctors say ‘go exercise,’ but there are no streetlights,” said Gabriela Aguilar, 40, who works 10-hour days as a house cleaner.

Lamont Park is the province of men, she and other women said, beset by vandalism, gambling, frequent fighting and pickup trucks selling beer at night. Mothers push strollers at dusk along shoulderless highways without sidewalks, lined only by dirt.

In Greenfield, home of the Sexy Moms, an urge to live healthier inspired the Greenfield Walking Group, a confederacy of more than 50 women who walk and sweat together every weekday morning. In 2005, the group became determined to clean up Stiern Park, then plagued by drug dealers, stray dogs, graffiti and corroded play equipment.

The ladies, as they call themselves, became activists, writing letters, lobbying local politicians and raising about $4,500 to reclaim the park. The husbands hand-built walking paths.

Today, a typical morning for many Greenfield women starts with walking and ends with dancing – each thump of the heart and sweaty swig of water an escalator for the spirit.

Younger dancers like 39-year-old Josie Montes of Lamont, who works in the produce department of local grocer, find inspiration in older dancers like Esther Olmos, 62, whose confidence and nimble footwork radiate energy.

The regular gatherings provide an opportunity for promotores to share information, including a diabetes health prevention program developed by Stanford University.

“Your friend talks to her friend, and she talks to a friend,” said Edgar Aguilar, the regional coordinator for the Kern County Promotoras Network. “That’s very effective, especially in the Latino community. When we want to do outreach, we come to the bailoterapia group.”

Maria Orozco (left), Petrita Castaneda (right) and several other women participate in dance therapy, called “bailoterapia,” at Grissom Park in Bakersfield. In addition to burning calories, they receive tips about nutrition and other issues.Casey Christie / The Bakersfield Californian

The life stories of promotoras like Bailon illustrate the healing power of dance.

A 39-year-old mother of two, Bailon had chronic kidney problems, as well as dangerously high blood pressure and cholesterol. “I see a lot of persons like me who are sick and don’t ask for help,” she said.

Bailon, who says she was painfully shy, changed her life, becoming both a dancer and a promotora. Her blood pressure has stabilized and she has been able to stop her kidney medication, she said.

She grew up in a traditional household where women were expected to stay put, Bailon said. 

“You can’t be at home waiting for everything,” she said, her hair held back with a girlish headband.

“People tell me I’ve changed,” she continued. “I feel more secure, more free.”  

She added: “I never liked dance, but the music helps your thinking. The women come every day, and they forget about the bad.”

The Greenfield dancers and walkers have launched a campaign to improve Rexland Acres Park, a sorry landscape where playground swings have been stolen for scrap metal.

“It’s about more than the exercise,” said Gema Perez, co-founder of the walking group. “It’s about uniting people.”

It is also about bragging rights. As the official Sexy Moms Club T-shirt proclaims:  “Si tu no puedes, yo si!” – “If you can’t do it, I can.”

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

Patricia Leigh Brown

Patricia Leigh Brown is a long-time writer for The New York Times and a contributor to California Watch. For 13 years she was a staff feature writer in New York, and since 2000 has been a contributor based in the San Francisco Bureau. She began her newspaper career as a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2009-10, she was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her work has been published in numerous book collections as well as many national magazines. Brown has been a visiting lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and is the Barach Teaching Fellow in Non-Fiction at the forthcoming Wesleyan University Writers Conference. She grew up in Highland Park, Ill.