A Participant Observation Exercise by Kolleen Feria 111527
In my four years of working out in Gold’s Gym, I usually just worked out alone. I focused on myself; thus zoning out the people and activities around me as much as possible. This became difficult to do, though, when I started frequenting the Gold’s Gym in Katipunan (I used to go to the one in Galleria), particularly on Wednesday evenings because there was always a commotion in the Gold’s Group Exercise (GGX) Room. The noise reduction feature of my earphones fell short matched against the combination of samba and heavy bass beats coupled with the high-pitched shouts of those in the GGX Room. Also, given that the treadmills faced the said room with glass walls, it was plain disorienting to watch women and some men form a Conga line in the midst of my huffing and puffing in the attempt to beat my previous time for a five-kilometer run. I mean, how unfair was it that I was mentally agonizing myself to just keep running while these people were shimmying as if they were partying with Beyoncé and Shakira? Suffice to say, one Wednesday a few weeks ago I wasn’t feeling so motivated for a run and it only took seeing my blockmate Alayne’s familiar face to convince myself to ditch the treadmill in favor of this party-like workout, henceforth referred to as Zumba.
A majority of the room was already filled up with women mostly in their 30’s or 40s’. Alayne took her spot in the front row and just as I was about to settle next to her, she told me that one of the moms already consistently claims that spot. (Alayne must be a regular too for her to know that.) I then took a place a few rows behind her because I thought it would give me a better vantage point to observe what goes on in this class. A minute or two later, a beat started to build from the speakers and Alex, the instructor who is male yet is wearing a loose neon yellow tank top and a bandeau, took his place on the platform facing everyone else. We warmed up to Usher’s “Scream.” Upon the onset of the first verse, I could already tell who were the regulars—the middle aged ladies in front with the exception of Alayne and one 30-something man and the mix of older and younger women in the next two to three rows. These were the people who didn’t need to wait for Alex’s cues to know what step was next. A few girls my age I recognize from school entered mid-warm up and fell into the remaining empty spaces on the back rows. They quickly got into the rhythm, easily moving in synch with Alex. This definitely wasn’t their first time either. The energy immediately escalated to near-palpable levels as we danced from intense song to even more intense song. I was thankful I had some dance background in high school and that I was used to cardiovascular activity. The steps were quick-paced, the movements were big, and one had to engage the entire body to be able to keep up. I noticed that about four or five people in my row were already falling behind the steps while the regulars seemed even more pumped up as implied by their chorus of playful howls. I joined in the howling albeit I realized I actually needed to catch my breath. No wonder these women (and this man) were still relatively fit considering their age.
Half an hour into the class, Alex signaled for the water break. There were those who went out the room and lined up by the drinking fountain but the regulars in front stayed inside, each one with their own jug. Alayne had her jug too and I asked if I could drink from it after she did. She then told me that most of the women here were “Ateneo moms,” and almost as if on cue we overheard their huddle complaining to each other about the new one-way system of the campus. Alayne continued, “They usually rush here to catch back-to-back classes after bringing home their sons. Grade school and high school. There are no Merriam moms though.” Before I could ask about the only man in front, Alex turned the music on already and went back up the platform. Those who went out to drink were rapidly filtering in, and soon we were in our original places.
There was no need for a second warm up. From the sweat penetrating through our clothes and with everybody’s game face already on, it was obvious that all were still hyped. Alex didn’t disappoint because for the next thirty minutes, we were jumping, side-lunging, waiving our hands and pumping our fists in the air, stomping forward and back, shaking our hips and occasionally shouting, “Zumba ehhh! Zumba ahhh!” I felt my heart racing like I was on my last kilometer on the treadmill sans the inner voice in my head coaching me to keep going. It wasn’t that running was harder than Zumba or that I liked running less; it was just that Zumba was downright a lot more fun. It felt as how it looked—like a party.
When it was time to cool down, I found myself urging Alex with the rest of the regulars for more. Alex didn’t oblige though quick with a laugh and reply, “Che! Alam n’yo namang may ibang next class!” We swayed and stretched to a mellower Latin-American tune and when the song ended, Alex thanked the class and bowed. No one left immediately however, not even those who went out earlier for a drink. Everyone kind of just broke into groups or pairs, engaged in conversation or banter while Alex went around to mingle. Apparently, Zumba was like a party even after it was over, but instead of a tipsy or drunk crowd, we were engaged in post-party interaction with an almost tangible glow from soaring endorphin levels.
Alayne asked me, “Next Wednesday again?”
As we moved towards the door, some of the Ateneo moms smiled at us, and Alex called out, “See you two next week!”
Yup, I was definitely about to become part of this weekly Wednesday party.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Had I merely observed, I probably wouldn’t have understood how energy can be drawn from other people. One has to join in the Zumba class to feel how infectious energy is when shared by a large group. Also, on the nights when I was watching Alex’s class from the treadmill, I thought their workout was relatively easy. I couldn’t have been more mistaken because it was only when I was doing the steps myself that I realized Zumba is actually more of a full body workout than running is, and that it called for more mental concentration because one has to consciously coordinate different muscle groups simultaneously to keep up with the fast-paced steps.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Having a key informant in an new setting, I felt less intimidated; thus, I was able to concentrate on being part of the class and observing the people rather than feeling self-conscious. Alayne served her role as a key informant most effectively by giving me both nonverbal and verbal information. The way people moved in synch with her (and Alex) helped me identify who were regulars. I also wouldn’t have found out so easily that these regulars shared something in common aside from being in the same Zumba class—that of being “Ateneo moms”—if Alayne didn’t tell me. Essentially, Alayne helped me gain familiarity.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Being a member of Gold’s Gym for nearly half a decade now, I’ve never seen so many participants in a single session of group exercise. A questionnaire will fall short at qualifying exactly how much fun people have in Alex’s class; hence, it well never be able to give me the same spike in endorphin levels that ultimately made me understand why the moms (and others who were regulars) became regulars here.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation
Questionnaires are better than participant observation when the information needed is more specific or quantitative. It can be used more effectively to gather data to determine demographics, statistics, and the like. Questionnaires also prove advantageous when one needs to gather a lot of data as it can be distributed to a larger number of people in less time, and when the researcher aims to eliminate or minimize observer bias
Interviews can provide the same information as the questionnaire, but its advantage over the questionnaire is that interviews also provide more qualitative depth. Interviewers may ask follow up questions should they find the initial responses of their interviewees insufficient. Moreover, interviewers can also pick up on the interviewees’ body language that can also provide significant information in some instances.