March 18, 2016 / 5:23 AM / 3 years ago

Zumba makes waves in Afghanistan, where dance once forbidden

KABUL (Reuters) - In a secluded gym in the Afghan capital, young women sway and jump in time with music in a Zumba dance fitness class, a new arrival in a country where dancing was once forbidden under the Taliban’s hardline rule.

The South American dance fitness craze landed in Kabul two months ago and has attracted enthusiastic followers.

“Although it is exercise for the body, it also relaxes the mind,” says 18-year-old Muzhgan Ahmadi. “So whenever someone wants to relax, he or she should do Zumba.”

Relaxation is important for Afghans living through the 15th year of war with a resurgent Taliban, whose bombs typically explode in Kabul on a weekly or even daily basis.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, they banned music, television, sports and dancing under their strict interpretation of Islam.

That changed after the U.S.-led invasion that ended their rule in 2001, and now Afghanistan is home to numerous television stations, beauty parlors, sports stadiums and wedding halls.

Still, Afghan society remains conservative, with women wearing head coverings or even the all-enveloping burqa outside.

Indoors, at the Zumba class in Kabul, the young dancers wear headscarfs with loose tracksuits as they practice the moves from an instructional video.

While the threat of attacks is rarely far from residents’ minds, Zumba enthusiasts say the dance provides welcome escape.

“When I (first) come to this gym, I felt afraid that someone may enter,” Ahmadi said. “But I ignored all the problems and fears and want to stand and carry on with this sport.”

Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel

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