Irina Peschan’s smile and beautiful energy burst into the room even before she steps in. Regardless of the studio, she is able to turn any room into an embracing space. From the moment she introduces herself, you feel safe in her class, a feeling that continues as her class progresses. Irina teaches from her heart, truly taking the time to include every person in her class and create a community within the hour of Zumba. She has a unique style that emerges from deep within her and permeates every molecule in the room – she infuses it into both her Zumba classes and her Afro Fusion Burn classes. She weaves her personal journey into her choreography and it is compelling to learn from her. She is actually able to create a safe space within a Zumba class in which it is okay to feel open and vulnerable – she sees everyone in a way that makes the class feel like we really are all in it together. Her energy is sweet, encouraging, and supportive and she quite simply is a wonderful teacher. Through her sweet energy, Irina commands a strong presence – her students respect her for her talent, her dedication, and the brilliant sunshine that she radiates.
Irina’s style is a harmonious blend of her traditional dance training and her study of West African, Congolese, and Haitian dance, as well as Samba and belly dance – and other styles she has learned and loved over the years. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Irina has been honing her talents from a very young age. Her classes are challenging, motivating, and definitely interesting. She infuses her passion into every move – especially in her Afro Fusion Burn classes, which she has designed herself. Irina is a skilled and intuitive teacher as she nurtures the class while still motivating everyone to do their best. It is clear that Irina is a kind and compassionate spirit and a powerhouse of positivity. Irina Peschan has been teaching with Z Club NY since its inception. Here, she shares some of her insight and wisdom…
When did you start dancing?
I started dancing when I was five years old. After spending a couple of years of watching my brother’s dance classes through a keyhole, I think my mom was pretty convinced that I was interested. I auditioned for a dance company – well, the Russian equivalent and I was accepted. I was chunky and chubby and adorable and I had just enough hair to be put in a little bun. I started dancing and never looked back.
So, you never stopped?
I actually stopped for two years in college because- well, I think I was confused. My body wasn’t confused though, because I physically craved to dance! I got back into dance through West African Dance, which I accidentally found. I was walking through campus and I heard drumming, and I thought – “oh! Drumming! What’s that? Let me go over there, I have some free time.” I sat there for three hours and watched two West African Dance classes back to back. I was sold. It looked free, it looked like they were flying, and it looked like they were intoxicated – and happy. It was just beautiful to watch. I went up to the teacher and asked him, “How do I take this class?” and he said all I had to do was register – so I did!
I did a year of West African Dance in college, and then my professor pointed me to a couple of dance spaces in New York City and I stared taking classes 5 times a week, and expanding to other styles – Congolese, Haitian, Samba, Belly Dance, Samba. I Ioved dancing, but was never expecting to teach. Wait no, that’s not true – when I was a little girl, people would ask me what I was going to do when I grew up. I said I was going to have a dance school and I was going to teach kids how to dance.
That was my life plan. I don’t know what happened – but after all kinds of stuff happening, I ended up teaching!
What was your experience like when you first started taking West African Dance?
I felt like I was coming alive again, like I was reconnecting with my body, like I was reconnecting with a part of my soul that was missing for a while. In Russia, I did international folkloric dance. Folk dancing comes from spirituality and traditions and climates, and song, and food. When I came to The States, I couldn’t really find anything like what I did back in Russia, until I found African Dance because it has the same roots – it comes from the people, culture, it comes from a land, a climate. The energy of the expression is the same. Folkloric dance is always more passionate, more emotional, more primal – no matter where it comes from. You feel the energy of the people.
I felt like I found, finally, the feeling when I did folkloric dance as a young woman and as a kid. It was warmth in the chest, openness in the heart, a smile on my face, and it was a feeling of flight.
How did you come to teach?
I was showing off at my yoga studio,::laughs::. I was hanging out with my yoga friends and they wanted to see some moves, so I showed them. They went – “oh you really know how to do this!” The owner of the studio offered me to teach African Dance in her space. I started teaching my own class there. It wasn’t a good fit for the space – just wasn’t the right place for it. I also occasionally subbed for my teacher, from whom I had learned at Columbia University. It was amazing because he trusted me – it validated me, in a way, because being white and Russian in this country – you’re not often taken seriously. It meant a lot to me that he trusted me to teach.
I found out they were looking for a dance teacher at SUNY Maritime, and so I auditioned and got the gig. They asked me to teach Zumba. I said, “Sure!’” I had no idea what Zumba was at the time. They’re looking for a dance teacher at SUNY maritime and I said yes of course. Asked me to teach Zumba – and I was like, sure! I had no idea what Zumba was at the time.! I started teaching the class as an African Dance class and three weeks later I got my Zumba license and I was like, “got it, that’s what’s up.” My dance background allowed me to put a class together fairly quickly. It wasn’t the class I teach today, but it was a class.
How did Z Club NY enter your life?
Through Edmee, who is a visionary! She has a gift for seeing potential in people, has a gift for coming up with brilliant ideas, and she is imaginative. She obviously saw something that she thought would work out for Z Club NY and me. She saw me on the day that I got licensed because Claudia, who is Z Club NY’s other amazing management half, was getting licensed on the same day. She asked me to come in and audition. Actually, “it just so happened that Tanya Beardsley gave her a shout out – she said, “Edmee is in the house doing revolutionary things with Zumba!” Her name sounded familiar to me, and I remembered that a friend of mine had shared a link about Edmee – this woman with this mysterious name – Edmee Cherdieu D’Alexis – was starting this new thing with Zumba called Z Club NY – and there are free classes, go check them out. I went in to audition and Edmee hired me initially as a sub then gave me a class a few weeks later.
How did it evolve from there?
From there, miss visionary, Edmee, asked me to do some West African Dance – and she loved it! She said we should do something with it. “Can you do a Zumba Class that is all African?” I think I was having a “Yes” streak in my life, so I was like, “Sure!” I started working on this all African Zumba class and realized that I needed to modify it for people who were not familiar for West African rhythms. I decided to mix up different styles that have African influence, such as Central African, Congolese, Haitian, Samba…etc. Eventually, I incorporated Dance Hall – not one of my original styles but one that I really like.
I started developing this class, and I was scared. I had this weight on my shoulders because I am white. I questioned whether I had the right to do this, and whether I am the right person for the job. I spoke to my West African Dance teacher and asked him what he felt – and he thought I was crazy because he said I have the right to teach it absolutely. He said, “You’ve studied it, you’ve learned it – you are not appropriating anything, you are sharing something you have learned with other people and there is nothing wrong with that.” Emotionally, it was difficult to become at ease with it – between that and trying to choreograph a diverse class that was high cardio and interesting – I actually got sick! Eventually though, it all came together.
I did a couple of demo classes and then Afro-Fusion Burn was born! The name emerged through Edmee and I going back and forth to try and capture the essence of what I was going to teach. We thought those three words kind of captured what the class was going to do. “Burn” has a lot of meanings- physical burn of calories and muscles burning, and also the fire of spirit and joy in what we do as well. It’s a soulful burn.
What does it feel like to teach Afro Fusion Burn?
For a long time, I really questioned whether it is okay, whether it’s good. First of all, who is Irina Peschan? Nobody knew who I was! I wasn’t a well-known Zumba instructor coming up with a new program. I was a newbie on the scene, teaching something that nobody had ever even heard of. For a long time it was a struggle. I am grateful that Z Club NY had the faith in me to keep the class on the schedule –even when I had only 2 people in the room – for a LONG time. Actually, can I give a shout- out and thank those people? “Thank you! There are people that have been in my class since day 1 – they know who they are. You know who you are!” They have been there since the very beginning and said “I love you, I love what you do, I’m going to keep coming back and I’m going to try to bring some friends and even if my friends don’t like it, I don’t care, because I’m going to keep coming back” and I still have those people in the room. I am very grateful for those people and to Z Club NY that they had faith in me. The more people began to find out, the more confident I became because I felt, “ok they don’t hate me, they like me, it’s working. “
You know that it’s working, when people want to do it. The more people became excited about doing it, the more excited I became about doing it. It encouraged me to choreograph more and do things that are more complex and trust my students to go there with me. The class evolved in me having faith my students, students in me, z club NY in me, me in Z Club NY. It’s an exchange of everyone coming together and saying – we are going to make this baby grow. It’s been doing that and it’s amazing.
I love Zumba, I live Afro-Fusion Burn
I listen to AFB music on the train – it is music that I truly love. I feel the songs so much, I love the rhythms and everything about them. It is who I am. I think the people who come to my class, feel that. I think you come to my class for the whole package – the music, the energy, the community. They are coming to a place where they can make eye contact, have conversation, bump hips, and if someone’s drop of sweat lands of them, they wont be upset – we are dancing together. We hold hands, we dance in a circle, and we look at each other. It is the overall experience that matters.
Can you talk about the community in your classes?
“I force people to like each other” ::laughs:::
Everything in life is relationships. We don’t have anything if we don’t have relationships. It’s about friendships and love and the human connection. I need my class to have that as part of it. I am so happy that so many of my students have become my friends. I have fallen in love with so many people that have stepped through the doors of my class. I feel like it’s difficult for me to have perspective.
Well, what have you observed – or what feedback have you gotten?
Once you step into my class, there is no ego, no competition. There is no “I’m the best dancer so I’m going to be in the front line and you’re the crappiest dancer so you’re going to be in the back line.” Basically if you’re advanced and if you’re in the front its to enjoy yourself and to help lead people and guide people.
For a long time, I felt like I needed to prove myself and I needed for people to like the class. I didn’t know who was coming and if they liked it or not – no regulars or relationships or reputation. Compared to now. Now? I ‘m not worried about having to prove anything because I am so happy with where everything is. I love the students – love that my students trust me, go there with me, everyone who comes into the space is up for a challenge. I don’t have to feel anxious that my choreography is too hard because everyone knows that I WILL teach it to you.
Now it is about a joy of sharing, being in the same space with people and doing this crazy class together than worrying.
How has being pregnant changed the way you see yourself/your teaching?
I think being pregnant – well, you kind of drop a lot of [stuff] when you’re pregnant. You release a lot of hang-ups. You don’t focus on a lot things that used to bother you. “Oh this doesn’t serve me? “Cut it off. “This is not conducive to my wellbeing?” (Which you need when you’re pregnant – you need well being), cut it off. So oh – maybe, I am just lighter.
A few people figured that since I am pregnant, I would just sort of fade out and disappear into the pregnancy abyss…and I was like, absolutely not! It made me want to keep going – and I think maybe pregnancy brain helps take creativity to a new level, I don’t know, making up new theories now ::laughs:: – I’m going to keep choreographing, going to keep doing new things, keep challenging my students. Just because I’m not doing all the jumps, doesn’t mean you’re not. My class keeps growing and going. I am not going anywhere, and this baby is dancing w us.
How has your own personal journey through pregnancy shifted things for you – how you think about yourself in different ways?
Pregnancy forced me to teach a little bit differently – when I first became pregnant, I didn’t know what it would be like, what my body was going to feel, and what pregnancy feels like. Even though my doctor told me not to Google and gave me the okay to exercise, even though I told him that I am like a jumping blender on steroids – he gave me the okay. Every indication out there –about exercising while pregnant basically pointed to me having to stop doing what I do. I was very scared, but I was also determined and I had the okay from my doctor. As a woman, when you have an understanding and connection with your body and when you are mindful, you know what feels right and what doesn’t. I had to adjust a bit –I tried to keep my heart rate below 180, I tried not to overheat as much. It actually was a beautiful thing because it helped me – it made my students work harder.
I feel as my expectations went up, everyone in the room stepped up. It helped me take the class to another level. It encouraged me to choreograph more, to be more complex, more intense. I wanted people to know that we are going to keep doing this regardless of how big my belly gets and that you’re going to keep working as hard as you worked before, and that you’re not going anywhere.
What advice do you have for women who want to keep dancing while pregnant?
Women are scared into sitting down, slowing down. Your doctor’s advice comes first. Your health comes first. If you have a doctor you trust, and a clean bill of health –you can exercise – as long as you are okay doing what you were doing before. Trust your own intuition. You have to know and trust your own body and not allow the doubts of others to impede on trusting yourself. I am very lucky and humble about this – I have been able to do what I do, and I’m sure that are a lot of others that are able to too. People will judge and People will question. That’s okay – as long as you trust yourself and your health provider – and your health –go for it and don’t let others discourage you.
What have you learned from your journey since being that little girl to now?
As someone who came into this world with many talents, into a family with high expectations – I was expected to excel by going through the success stratosphere – I didn’t always succeed, I had many failures and doubts along the way. Ultimately, I have come to a place where I like myself – where I have grown to like myself as a person regardless of the failures. I have come to once again be who I was as a kid who enjoyed what she did. I find joy in what I do. It’s not always about whether it is going to bring you money or good reviews or approval. That’s really it – ultimately we just want to be ok with ourselves. Just want to look at yourself in the mirror and say “I’m alright” and – I am alright.
Success is relative – that is the biggest lesson I had to learn as an immigrant, as Russian Jewish child – expected to excel. Success is relative. I’ve learned to realize that all the financial success in the world is not going to make me okay with me. I am enough. I like myself and I am so grateful that my child is coming into this world at a time where I feel that way. I am not questioning the validity of my existence in this world. The validity of whether I matter. I don’t question if I matter anymore.