Zumba instructor with Down syndrome wows 'em at Anchorage high school

The music begins and Yulissa Arescurenaga comes to life. And so does the room full of people in her Zumba class Friday afternoon at Service High School.

The music, pulsating with Latin beats, is familiar. So are the moves, many of them inspired by dances like the merengue and salsa.

What's different is that Arescurenaga has Down syndrome. A 24-year-old Californian by way of Peru, Arescurenaga spent six years learning and memorizing routines in order to become a licensed Zumba instructor.

"She was killing it," said Liam Mamikunian, a recent Service graduate and one of about 50 people who worked up a sweat under Arescurenaga's guidance. "She didn't miss a beat."

Mamikunian is co-president of Service's Special Olympics Partners Club, which pairs mentors like him with special education students. Arescurenaga's workout left him exhausted – and impressed.

"I got an amazing workout," he said. "It's an amazing inclusive experience. There's no differences when it comes to this."

Arescurenaga and her mother and aunt are in Anchorage this week courtesy of the Alaska Chapter of the National Down Syndrome Congress. The group teamed up with The Arc of Anchorage and the Alaska Club to bring Arescurenaga to town for two days of instruction.

She led classes at Service and The Alaska Club on Friday, and on Saturday she'll lead three classes for clients at The Arc.

Arescurenaga, dressed in lime green sweats and a tangerine tank top, began the class by clapping in rhythm with the music. Soon everyone in the room was clapping and doing their best to keep up with her every move.

Standing side-by-side in the front row were 17-year-old Kelsey McCarthy-Keeler and 18-year-old Rachel Robinson, who both have Down syndrome, one of the most common genetic disorders.

Robinson matched Arescurenaga move-for-move, often with even bigger arm gestures and hip thrusts.

"It was really cool," said Robinson, who said she likes to dance. Her busy schedule also includes cheerleading and track, where she participates in the long jump and shot put.

Molly McCarthy, Kelsey's mom, said the class was a good experience for her daughter.

"She has to visually watch and imitate," McCarthy said.

Licensed in 2012, Arescurenaga is said to be the nation's first person with Down syndrome to become a certified Zumba instructor. She regularly teaches classes in the San Francisco area and has been on stage with Zumba creator Beto Perez at the annual Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida.

Adam Ahonen, a life skills teacher at Service, said it's enlightening for others to see someone like Arescurenaga, who through years of training and practice was able to make her dream of teaching Zumba come true.

"It just opens up so many doors, to know somebody's out there doing it," he said. "It teaches them they could be the first person with Down syndrome or autism doing something."

Ahonen, a co-sponsor for Service's Partners Club, said Arescurenaga's achievements are eye-opening for mentors in the club, who sometimes believe they need to do things for students with disabilities.

"We don't have to do stuff for them – we need to help them learn to adapt and do things on their own," he said.

Seeing Arescurenaga take charge of a room full of people is to watch a confident young woman share her talent and passion.

Her aunt, Milagros Shelmadine, said Arescurenaga has always loved music and dancing. She remembers a family party when Arescurenaga was a 1-year-old. When it ended, Arescurenaga was still dancing.

"She never stopped," Shelmadine said.

Arescurenaga's mom, Marlene Palomino, said her daughter is very shy. But when Arescurenaga is leading a class, something changes. She makes an instant connection with the music, the dance moves and the people.

"When she's with the music, she's got it," Palomino said.

Other than her trips to the national convention in Florida, this is the first time Arescurenaga has traveled out of state to be a guest instructor, Palomino said. She said something about Friday's class at Service – one filled with teenagers, some with Down syndrome, many without – was special.

When the class ended, Arescurenaga ran up one row of participants and down another, slapping hands with everyone and paying special attention to two boys in wheelchairs.

"She's never done that before," said Palomino, who said the moment nearly made her cry. "I thought, 'oh my gosh!'

"When she saw the energy of the students, they motivated her."