Three years ago, when fitness instructor Alison Ellis Egerton was mastering the hip rolls and salsa steps of a new Latin-fusion dance class called Zumba, she never imagined the moves would land her in prison. But that’s just where she goes nine times a month—as a volunteer teacher at the Tennessee Prison for Women—to lead dozens of jeans- and boots-clad women through the 60-minute high-intensity class.
“Everyone asks me why on earth I’d want to do it,” says Alison, 33. “But I think everyone deserves health.”
Alison’s generous spirit has roots in a challenging stretch in her own life. At 18, she was a single mom, supporting herself and her infant son, Jansen. When she wasn’t in class at a local interior design college in Nashville, Tenn., she worked as a personal trainer and wellness coach at the Y during shifts when the facility’s childcare center was open.
Before long, Alison’s life began to turn around—she got on her feet financially, became a fitness devotee and even met her husband, March, while working at the Y’s front desk.
“Part of why I give so much to the Y is because I got so much,” Alison says. As Board Chair of her neighborhood center, the Margaret Maddox Y in East Nashville, she helps raise money for the center’s financial assistance program, and was instrumental in making the facility’s new Teen and Senior Center a reality.
It was at the Maddox Y that Alison fell in love with Zumba. “I just think it’s genius exercise. The music is so fun, and it really maximizes your calorie burn,” says Alison, who teaches a weekly Zumba class at a local studio.
One day after class she was chatting with one of her students, a volunteer coordinator for the Tennessee prison system. “Gosh, I wish the ladies at the prison could do this; it’s such a stress reliever,” Alison recalls the woman saying. “And I said, well, we should provide it for them!”
Things fell into place, and now, along with a co-teacher, Alison gathers with the inmates in the prison’s unair-conditioned gym, where, during last summer’s heat wave, the temperature regularly soared to 96 degrees. “I told them they were getting a luxury—hot Zumba! Somebody might pay a lot for that in a gym!” she says, laughing.
But her investment in the prisoners is a serious one. In the limited time they have to chat, she answers weight-loss questions and discusses the importance of making smart food choices. “No one’s ever discussed these things with them,” she says. “Many of them are going to get out eventually—and they all have children. So I tell them, maybe you weren’t taught about nutrition and fitness, but now you know a little bit, and you can teach your children and help them avoid the path that got you here.”
She realizes that her classes are only a tiny step in a positive direction. But there are some signs of true change. One prisoner has lost 40 pounds since she started doing Zumba. Another, a 24-year-old who has been in prison nearly a decade, approached Alison tearfully not long ago. “She said she had never in her life chosen to take care of herself, not physically or any other way. And she told me, ‘Now that I’m doing this, it’s affecting my thinking on all kinds of levels.’ I never would have imagined that could come out of Zumba!”